Since taking over as NBA commissioner in 1984, David Stern has been the driving force behind expanding the global reach of the league and sport. There are more fans than ever in continents other than North America, and more players than ever that come from countries in Europe, South America, and Asia. Those numbers will only rise as time goes by and more people get exposed to what the NBA has to offer.
For years, Stern has dreamed of continuing that international development and bringing expansion teams to European cities such as London, Paris, and Rome. A decade ago, those additions looked likely, but that expansion never came to pass.
However, Stern still believes that it will happen relatively soon. In a Thursday interview with Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo of ESPN Radio (warning: audio plays automatically), Stern said he expects the NBA to include European teams within 20 years (via PBT):
“I think so. I think multiple NBA international teams. Twenty years from now? For sure. In Europe. No place else. In other places I think you’ll see the NBA name on leagues and other places with marketing and basketball support, but not part of the NBA as we now know it.”
In past years, Stern has said that there would need to be a European division that would allow teams to make a long road trip for multiple games, not just one really out-of-the-way trip to London for a single game. (Flights are also not terribly long, especially if air travel becomes faster with technological advances.) That's still very much true, and the idea of simply bringing successful European club teams into the NBA is compelling, because it would require less work than building up new fan bases and marketing new brands.
Still, there are lots of questions as to how this expansion would work, and even the extent to which it's feasible. Recent attempts at NBA expansion have been mixed: the Charlotte Bobcats struggle to draw fans and a reasonable local TV audience, the Vancouver Grizzlies had to move to Memphis after several years, and the Toronto Raptors still have trouble appealing to certain American-born players even though they play in a very nice and large city where everyone speaks English. It's somewhat likely that American players — still the vast majority of the league's on-court employees — wouldn't much care for playing in Europe and that European fans wouldn't warm to the league with the intensity we're used to seeing in domestic markets. Plus, there are major cultural differences that can't be brushed aside easily. European soccer leagues have serious problems with racism — including on the pitch between players — and that history of racial discord is far different and discussed less openly than what we see with similar issues in America.
These issues aren't necessarily going to go away due to the passage of time, and it's possible that the NBA shouldn't (and can't) expand in perpetuity simply because new markets and fans are there to be exploited. Once upon a time, Stern thought we'd already have teams in Europe by this point in time. The fact that hasn't happened in the expected timeframe should make us question whether or not these additions are really inevitable.
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