N.B.A. in India, in Search of Fans and Players
The N.B.A. has built community basketball courts in neighborhoods across India, like Nagpada in Mumbai.
By JEREMY KAHN
Published: December 27, 2010
NEW DELHI — The success of N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern’s 25-year crusade to globalize basketball is often summed up in two words: Yao Ming. After Yao, a 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai, was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002, the league attracted hundreds of millions of new fans in China. And though Yao is out for the season with a stress fracture that could end his professional career, the N.B.A.’s international march continues.
This season, the league will play its first regular-season games in Europe, a two-game matchup in March between the Nets and the Toronto Raptors in London. And having conquered China, the N.B.A. has its sights fixed on Asia’s other big emerging market: India.
Like China, India has a rapidly expanding middle class with newfound leisure time and disposable income, factors that Heidi Ueberroth, the president of N.B.A. International, says make the country ripe for new forms of entertainment.
“There is a growing appetite for sports and entertainment and more options in India,” she said.
In a nation where cricket is an obsession, other sports have struggled to find an audience. Cricket’s popularity has been reinforced by the Indian Premier League, which began in 2008. I.P.L. teams play Twenty20, a faster-paced game that has attracted younger fans and billions of dollars in corporate sponsorship.
But in part because the I.P.L. has proved that city-based sports franchises can succeed in India, many sports are betting that they will be able to find new fans and corporate backers here.
“The race is now on to become India’s second-most-popular sport,” said Sunder Aaron, the head of Pix, one of two Indian television channels that earlier this month signed a contract to broadcast live games and other N.B.A. programming.
The list of international sports knocking on India’s door is a long one: Formula One is scheduled to hold its first race in India in 2011. The European Tour of professional golf has held tournaments here. English Premier League soccer, which has a growing following, held a promotional trophy tour in the country this month. And FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, has opened a marketing campaign to sell official merchandise here. Even Major League Baseball has attempted to recruit pitching talent in India.
Ueberroth said that basketball’s popularity could grow rapidly in India because of the sport’s relative simplicity and the fact that a court can be created almost anywhere one can hang a hoop. This gives it an advantage over soccer and cricket, which require open fields. Basketball also requires little specialized equipment.
A core part of the N.B.A.’s expansion strategy in India is increasing grass-roots participation, based on the belief that people who play basketball are also more likely to follow the N.B.A. The league also knows that the more Indians who play basketball, the more likely it is that one day an Indian player will be good enough to make the leap to the N.B.A. — an event that could vastly expand the league’s popularity in the world’s second-most-populous nation.
The Basketball Federation of India, the sport’s governing body, estimates that 4.5 million Indians play the game. That is a fraction of the country’s 1.2 billion people, but Ueberroth said the N.B.A. suspected the real number was much higher because the federation’s statistics missed players who did not belong to a league.
To try to accelerate basketball’s growth, the N.B.A. dispatched Troy Justice to India in February to serve as its first director of basketball operations in the country. Justice helps run the N.B.A. Mahindra Challenge, a series of youth leagues and tournaments in five Indian cities.
Justice said the N.B.A. saw the young players as the vanguard of the N.B.A.’s efforts. The concept, he said, was to give the country’s teenagers more opportunities to play basketball in a formal setting throughout the year.
“The kids here have the natural ability and the talent, but they are not given the opportunity to develop it,” he said.
In addition to Justice, the league sent the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pau Gasol on short ambassadorial missions to Mumbai and Delhi in the summer. It also sent two coaches to India to train the men’s and women’s national teams ahead of November’s Asian Games in China. It has created an India-specific portion of NBA.com, featuring postings by two Indian bloggers.
Viewership for the N.B.A. in India has also been rising quickly, but from such a low base that it remains minuscule, said Atul Pande, the chief executive of Ten Sports, which has contracted to broadcast Eastern Conference games. Pande said he thought the audience for a live N.B.A. game would never exceed 200,000 households. The viewership for many I.P.L. cricket matches is in the tens of millions.
“The problem is timing,” he said.
Games played in the Eastern United States are broadcast at 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. in India.
“It was hard at first to get up and watch the games,” said Karan Madhok, the communications director of India’s federation, who also runs an N.B.A.-related blog called Hoopistani, which is featured on the N.B.A. Web site.
“I thought I was the only person in the country watching. But as I’ve started blogging about the N.B.A., I’ve been contacted more and more by other fans, and I realize there are a lot more fans who do it.”
For the N.B.A. to reach critical mass among Indian sports fans, many say, will require what Madhok calls a Yao Ming moment. In other words, India is waiting to see a homegrown star make it in the N.B.A.
N.B.A. officials dispute this assessment.
“There are a number of countries where basketball is extremely popular without any players in the league,” Ueberroth said.
Others note that the ranks of English Premier League soccer fans in India are growing rapidly even though there are no Indians playing in the league.
Still, the N.B.A. is not turning a blind eye to the search for an Indian Yao. Among Justice’s jobs is scouting talent. And he has found a few prospects. Among the most promising is Satnam Singh Bhamara, 14, a 7-foot-2 player from a rural village in Punjab Province. Justice helped him land a spot at an IMG basketball academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“He has a bright future,” Justice said. “We don’t know where he’ll end up, but he’s got a lot of natural — for a 14-year-old, 7-footer — a lot of natural basketball instincts.”
Others point to the potential of two Canadian brothers of Indian descent, 15-year-old Sim and 17-year-old Tanveer Bhullar, who are more than 7 feet. Madhok said that if either made it to the N.B.A., it would inspire Indian fans and players.
The lack of a native star had not dented enthusiasm for the N.B.A. among the young players who were competing in the Mahindra Challenge tournament here last Saturday. All the players on the Basketball Rocker Jazz, a team from Shalimar Bagh, a middle-class neighborhood in the northern reaches of this sprawling city, said they followed the league closely.
Their favorite team?
“The Lakers,” Raghav Mittal, 11, said without hesitation. “Most of the best players are there.”