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Eric Freeman

Could London NBA games be a warmup for the Olympics?

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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It's now March, a month in which most certain lottery teams become largely irrelevant to the NBA landscape as they sit their best players with minor injuries and focus on improving their draft position. However, things are different this year, because the league has sent the Nets and Raptors to London for games on Friday and Saturday.

What's that, North American basketball fan? You haven't heard much about this enterprise? Have no fear, for these games exist more for the benefit of European fans -- specifically those in the UK, obviously -- rather than people who can attend NBA games on a somewhat regular basis. To the domestic fan, this is little more than a back-to-back featuring two lottery teams. They'll just play this afternoon instead of tonight.

That's not to say that there aren't important issues at play this weekend in London, though. As you may have heard, the city will host the 2012 Olympics, and basketball tickets may not sell as well as in countries like China or the United States. As such, this weekend's games are something of a tryout for the city. From Doug Smith in The Star:

Basketball is one of the marquee events of any Summer Olympics - especially with the presence of the globally popular NBAers who dot many of the national team rosters - but the game has no real grassroots appeal in London.

So part of the reason for the NBA games here is to increase awareness and, potentially, increase attention during the London Games so that organizers aren't left scrambling to sell tickets to what's normally a virtual sellout event. [...]

"I think it really starts with (bringing) more attention to the game," said Briton Luol Deng(notes) of the Chicago Bulls. "Over there, soccer, rugby, cricket, those things get a lot of attention and it takes away from kids that are into basketball or who could be good at basketball. They seem to kind of ignore the sport because the attention is not there. It really starts with that."

Smith is undoubtedly right that basketball will be a tougher sell in London than they were in 2008 in Beijing, but he might also be overselling the problem. The Olympics attract sports fans from many countries, so it's likely that the biggest basketball games will attract attendees from the nations involved and other basketball-loving peoples from the United States. There won't be any situation where important medal-round games don't sell out -- the athletes involved are too high-profile for that.

However, it seems reasonably likely that less high-profile games between countries like Australia and Lithuania will have trouble selling tickets. But while that is very clearly a bummer for Olympic organizers, it has relatively little to do with the NBA's interest in these games. Team USA and foreign stars like Pau Gasol(notes) will have a presence in 2012 no matter what -- the NBA doesn't need an Australia/Lithuania match to sell out to get noticed by new fans. For that matter, the Olympics may be just as valuable to the league as a TV event than as one to attend -- countless fans will be exposed to NBA athletes around the world in high-level competition.

The NBA would absolutely like to see the Olympic basketball become as popular as possible, but it's a minor consideration of this weekend. Ultimately, the NBA is going to survive in Europe because of its own efforts to appeal to fans on the continent, not indirect measures like the Olympics. The Nets and Raptors are in London to test the viability of playing regular season games in Europe on a consistent basis. It's an important issue for the London organizers, but a minor one for David Stern.

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