- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

NBA commissioner David Stern is no politician, trade official or designated ambassador. But one could argue that basketball's biggest boss has a more solid handle on international trade and politics than some folks on Capitol Hill.
The NBA began its season with what is perhaps the deepest platform of international business in the history of professional sports. Sure, the NFL has run its European summer league for more than a decade and remains the most popular spectator attraction on the globe. The NHL and Major League Baseball each boast more than a quarter of their player bases from outside the U.S. and Canada. Major European soccer teams like Manchester United claim to have hundreds of millions of fans around the globe.
But the NBA trumps them all, thanks largely to the worldwide distribution of its games on TV, still the most powerful economic driver in sports. The league will broadcast its regular season games even the duller midweek contests to a league-record 212 countries. And those broadcasts will air in 42 different languages. Both numbers easily beat the broadcast distribution for even the Super Bowl.
The NHL technically airs in a few more countries, 217, with somewhat similar depth into its regular-season schedule. But the bulk of hockey's worldwide distribution beyond Europe is through one main carrier, ESPN International, while the NBA holds contracts with 148 different networks and generates more aggregate hours of overseas programming. With the quality of play under continuous assault, and fan interest by several measures flagging here in America, the NBA's international component arguably is the strongest thing going about the league right now.
Perhaps most telling, however, about the NBA's global TV roster are the countries the league goes to that are on icy terms, at best, with the U.S. government. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea all receive NBA games, showing that despite deep divisions in religious, political and economic ideology and looming threats of war, everybody really does love this game.
"Anytime you do international business there are risks. Anything that happens politically or economically can obviously have a major, major impact," said Scott Levy, NBA vice president for international TV and marketing partnerships. "But this is an area with huge opportunity for us. Our game is one played the world over. Our player base and our fan base is growing more diverse all the time. TV is the easiest way to serve and broaden that fan base, and it's something we've made a significant priority."
The roots of the NBA's global dominance predictably lie in the original Dream Team from the 1992 Summer Olympics. There the rest of the world received its first major introduction to Magic, Michael, Larry and the rest of the team, most of whom were at or near the peaks of their professional careers. The overseas clamor for regular-season and playoff NBA games was immediate, and an 87-country TV lineup before the '92 Games doubled within four years.
Since the mid-1990s, the NBA's foreign player base also has mushroomed, reaching a league record 67 this year, led by the six different countries represented just on Dallas' roster. Five foreign-born players made last year's All-Star Game. The league continues to add out-of-the-way nations to the TV roster, as well as highlight and feature programming to supplement the game action. NBA TV, the league in-house, 24-hour channel, now goes to 28 countries.
And, of course, the latest push to the NBA's global march has been the arrival of Houston center Yao Ming. The Chinese star's entry into the league fueled the recent signing of several TV networks there to carriage deals with the NBA. Twelve networks from China alone, an unprecedented figure for the league, are tracking Yao's progress.
"China's a very important market for any global marketer," said George Postolos, the Rockets chief operating officer, earlier this year. "It's a reservoir of 1.3billion people. It's a market that is receiving more and more attention. If you're any kind of global marketer and you're looking to grow, China is an important market. It's a very important market to the NBA."
The payoff from international TV to the NBA comes not just in the increase in its pot of rights fees and the growth of its fan base. It also arrives in the form of increased sponsorship because the league now is working with several of its top-level corporate sponsors around the world. Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola through its Sprite subsidiary have active marketing programs with the league literally spanning the globe, often in the native languages.
"That's really one of the key benefits of not just going into a new country in English or with just games," Levy said. "By doing something deeper, bringing in the feature and supplementary programming, highlighting the NBA ties to that country, and getting in that native language where possible, the fan is better served, the sport is better served, and the sponsor is better served."

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