- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — While the NBA remains behind football and baseball in the hearts of American sports fans, it continues to grow in popularity on the global scene.

At the same time Seattle is in danger of losing the SuperSonics and the New Orleans Hornets are struggling financially, the NBA continues to see its earning potential and marketability rise abroad.

The world just can’t get enough of the NBA.

And the media circus at All-Star weekend vividly reflected that.

Of the 1,000 media members who descended upon the Big Easy from Thursday to Sunday, 285 hailed from 33 foreign countries and territories. The 2008 All-Star festivities were broadcast by 123 international telecasters to 215 countries and territories in 44 different languages.

Among the countries are China — represented by 12 TV stations, radio stations and Web sites — Spain, Italy, France, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Germany and England.

This season the league boasts 77 international players. A record 12 of those international players took part in the All-Star festivities. But the majority of the countries covering the weekend’s events didn’t have a sole representative. Countrymen or no countrymen, the NBA is all the rage.

“Basketball big sport, very big in Taiwan,” RoundBallCity.com writer Doctor Lee said. “When I was coming up, we have baseball and basketball. I play basketball. My friends play baseball. Before, baseball to basketball players: 10 baseball to one basketball. Now it’s 10 basketball to one baseball. We like NBA and really like players more than teams — [Allen] Iverson, Kobe [Bryant], Steve Nash. No one watch European basketball.

“Why NBA so popular, I don’t know,” Lee added. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s American Army players played our army in basketball. So Taiwan has liked basketball, and it gets bigger. Now we like NBA.”

The NBA interest was sparked by the original Dream Team in Barcelona in 1992. After witnessing what Americans had to offer in the professional ranks, the world begged for more.

The international fans closely followed Michael Jordan in the Chicago glory days, but since his retirement the influx of international stars has kept the interest growing. Dirk Nowitzki draws the German fan base, Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro give the Spaniards reason to cheer, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw fuel the French craze, Manu Ginobili ignites the Argentine crowd and so on.

The NBA’s popularity in China has grown rapidly since Houston drafted 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming six years ago. This year Yao made his sixth All-Star appearance, and his success paved the way for the Bucks to draft 7-footer Yi Jianlian third overall last summer. Also this year, the NBA opened a China division, which handles all the league’s marketing and television deals in that country.

And of course, a number of American stars rank among the international fans’ favorites.

China’s reporters flocked this week to Bryant and Iverson.

They jostled around during interviews, craving sound bites from the perennial All-Stars, even if at times they had no idea what to ask.

One reporter from China asked Iverson how the Nuggets guard thought the U.S. Olympic team would do at the Beijing Olympics this summer. Iverson, who has made public his bitterness that he isn’t included on the roster, said he didn’t know how strong the team would be this year.

The reporter was confused and asked, “The team doesn’t feel strong? You don’t feel stronger this year?”

Iverson didn’t bother correcting the reporter to tell her he wasn’t even on the team but laughed and said, “I hope I’m stronger. I always hope to be strong.”

The reporter thanked Iverson and then zipped off to Bryant’s already crowded table.

The advancement of satellite television and Internet broadcast capabilities has made it possible for international fans to stay up to date on the progress of their idols.

Early on, the hunger was satisfied by taped games that aired up to 10 days after they were played in the United States. But now games are more accessible.

In Taiwan, which like China broadcasts six live NBA games a week, the games come on in the morning, when most fans are either at school or at work. But Lee said students and desk workers log onto taiwan.NBA.com and watch the games while pretending to study or work.

In France, NBA games come on twice a day, according to sports commentator George Eddy of Canal+. Live NBA games are broadcast in the middle of the night — often seven days a week. The games are then retelevised later each afternoon.

The NBA has begun playing preseason games overseas, and in the last week a report said commissioner David Stern is considering expanding the league with a five-team European division.

Cities like London, Berlin, Rome, Paris and Madrid either already have or are in the process of constructing NBA-ready arenas, and Stern believes the expansion could come within a decade.

“What we’ve always said was that if there were the appropriate arena structure, if there were the appropriate fan affinity and there was the pricing structure that would be necessary for a team to compete in the NBA, then it would seem to be an opportunity for us to grow,” Stern explained last night.

Such an idea is stunning to some players. But considering the ever-growing demand for their sport, the expansion wouldn’t be a total shock.

“It’d be kinda hard to imagine, but the NBA is always going global,” San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said. “They’d make it work somehow. They’d bring back the Concord or something? Travel, they’d obviously, they’d have circuits over there. But travel, scheduling would have to be a [bear]. But I think American players would wanna be a part of any NBA team. It’s a small group of guys, and a million guys wanna be a part of the NBA, so put us where you want us to play, and people will wanna play.”

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