London’s role in the international expansion of the NBA


In a recent article on our ‘Inside Track’ content hub, we reported on the NFLs agreement with Tottenham Hotspur, which allows for a minimum of two games per year to be played at their new stadium in London over 10 years. Steve Swanson, programme director for Sport Leadership at GlobalSportsJobs academic partner Loughborough University London,  explains how the NFL are not alone in pursuing a globalisation strategy with London featuring centrally:

The American-based NBA is another professional sports league which is keenly aware of the opportunities that accompany growing their brand internationally. Their 2015/16 schedule includes numerous NBA games taking place outside the US, with Orlando Magic facing the Toronto Raptors at the O2 Arena in London. The NBA is also interested in eventually having a team based in London, though NBA Commissioner Adam Silver earlier this year said he considered the NFL to be ahead in this pursuit. In addition to the large investment that the NFL has made in London, it also has some advantages over the NBA logistically due to playing far fewer games per season (16 versus 82) and only playing one game per week. 

The NBA also has a rich history of playing games overseas, with the regular occurrence of exhibition games against European teams since 1984. NBA regular season games outside of North America began in 1990 in Japan, and have continued with numerous contests in China and Europe more recently. Like the NFL, London has played a significant role in the NBAs globalisation campaign, hosting both the first international exhibition game between two NBA teams in 1993 and the first regular season contest in 2011. Last year the NBA made the decision to group all of these overseas initiatives under one banner referred to as the NBA Global Games. Unlike the NFLs International Series, this collection of competitions continues to take place across numerous different countries.

League and sport considerations

While the NBA may be a bit behind in the race for a London franchise, the landscape does seem to offer several advantages in relation to international growth. General interest in the game of basketball itself is second only to soccer in terms of worldwide appeal, with representation in many regions as one of the most popular sports overall (e.g. Lithuania, Spain, Argentina, and China). This is also evident in the fact that NBA international competitions have historically been friendlies against basketball teams which already exist in other nations. A global presence of participation is further exemplified by the existence of an international governing body (FIBA), which has more members than FIFA and exists in part to promote basketball all over the world. Furthermore, basketball’s inclusion as a recognised Olympic sport (though the NFL has applied for 2020) also provides a supplementary boost to the NBA’s brand in a continuous four-year cycle. Finally, the NBA also has a large capacity to leverage themselves internationally on the basis of player representation, with more than 100 foreign nationals from 37 different counties playing in the NBA last season.

It will be interesting to watch the contrasting globalisation approaches of both the NFL and NBA unfold over the next decade. Whether a London franchise for a US-based league indeed becomes a reality, and whether this will in turn be a catalyst for further expansion and international growth is yet to be determined. The NFL’s immense wealth and current foothold in London certainly indicate increased international growth, yet the global environment seems to signal a stronger position for the NBA throughout the rest of the world. As each league has a unique history and distinct set of environmental considerations, perhaps both pathways toward internationalisation will prove successful in their own way.

This insight piece was written by Dr Steve Swanson, the Director of Sport Leadership at the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University London, located on the iconic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Click here for information on Loughborough University London’s key application dates and £0.5m scholarship and bursary package.


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