Dec 28, 2019 - Sports

The NBA sets its sights on Africa

Kendall Baker, author of Sports

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The NBA has spent the last 25 years importing a surge of international talent — now it hopes to benefit by exporting the brand those global stars have helped build.

Why it matters: The NBA's attempt at operating a league outside of North America (they hoped to do something similar in China, but it failed) is part of a long-term plan to make the NBA synonymous with competitive basketball around the world.

Driving the news: The Basketball Africa League (BAL), a 12-team circuit operated by the NBA and FIBA, just unveiled its logo and held its first scouting combine ahead of a March 2020 launch.

  • Background: The NBA has hosted Basketball Without Borders camps throughout Africa since 2003, opened an official league office in South Africa in 2010 and built a training academy in Senegal in 2017.
  • How it works: The inaugural BAL season will feature 12 teams from across the continent, and all games will be played in seven host cities: Cairo, Egypt; Dakar, Senegal; Monastir, Tunisia; Rabat, Morocco; Lagos, Nigeria; Luanda, Angola; Kigali, Rwanda (playoff host).

Between the lines: The BAL will strengthen the NBA's talent pipeline in Africa, which has already produced over 80 current and former players, including 2019 MVP candidates Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam (both from Cameroon). It will also help foster a more robust basketball landscape in Africa itself.

  • "[Players] will no longer just dream of going abroad," Assane Badji, operations manager at the NBA Africa Academy, told NYT. "Instead they will stay, dream of playing in a big competition here, and value themselves."

The big picture: The NBA is far from the only American sports league with global ambitions, but is perhaps the best positioned to expand internationally.

  • The NFL has a worldwide presence, but football remains primarily an American sport. And while the NHL and MLB have lots of international talent, hockey and baseball aren’t nearly as popular around the world as basketball is.
  • Even soccer, the world’s most popular sport, doesn’t have a singular brand that stands head and shoulders above the rest like the NBA does in basketball.

Yes, but: As evidenced by the backlash to Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey's pro-Hong Kong tweet in October, global expansion comes with risks..

The bottom line: Given Africa’s history of producing basketball talent and its huge youth population, the BAL presents a unique opportunity for the NBA to grow.

  • But thanks to the league’s declining TV ratings in the U.S., the timing isn’t ideal. What may have once been viewed as a smart business decision might now be viewed as a distraction from the problems it faces at home.

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