The 2014-15 edition of NBA's annual Global Games initiative continues Thursday, as the pleasantly surprising Milwaukee Bucks will face off against the very-much-the-opposite-of-that New York Knicks at the O2 Arena in London, England. (If it strikes you as odd that the NBA, as Grantland's Jason Concepcion puts it, "looked at the Bucks’ 15-67 record from last season and the Knicks’ 37-45 mark from last year and decided, 'Yes, send them to a country that barely likes basketball,'" you are not alone!)
The run-up to Thursday's tilt has featured a number of now-typical "hey, we're playing somewhere different!" conventions — sight-seeing, pop quizzes on familiarity with local slang, visits to the home stadia of soccer clubs, and so on. NBA commissioners greeting the foreign press isn't quite as exciting a travel tradition as a trip to Stamford Bridge, but it's part of the process all the same, and in his chat with the media, Commissioner Adam Silver used a pretty curious turn of phrase to describe the league's commitment to continued growth on — and eventual expansion into — the Continent, according to Owen Gibson of The Guardian:
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“My sense is that the NFL is a little bit ahead of us in terms of their timeline for having a franchise based in London. There are some aspects of their schedule that make it easier – they play once a week, they have fewer games,” said Adam Silver, who took over from David Stern as the commissioner last year.
“It will be easier logistically for them to pull it off. It would be difficult for us to have one team in Europe. We’d have to put both feet down. That would mean having four franchises in Europe.”
He said that the arena infrastructure was improving across Europe with US-style arenas in place or under construction in England, Germany, France and Spain.
“We’re not there yet. I know that as much growth as we’ve seen, we have a long way to go before we can sustain four franchises in Europe,” said Silver, who has worked at the NBA since 1992. “On the other hand, I believe it’s our manifest destiny to expand.”
"Manifest destiny," of course, refers to the popular belief (although perhaps not as widespread as one might think) held during the 1800s that westward expansion across North America was the United States' birthright, preordained by God, in keeping with the notion that the U.S. was a nation created with the special purpose of bringing religion to the New World. That belief was also used as a means to justify American imperialist efforts to conquer, subdue and/or wipe out non-white natives on the continent, as well as land-grabs that led to wars; Queens College history professor Donald M. Scott recently wrote an interesting piece about the religious, social and political underpinnings of manifest destiny for the National Humanities Center's Divining America initiative.
It's a pretty heavy-duty concept chock full of historical resonance and implications, and a pretty weird term for Silver to toss into a discussion of whether the NBA would have more basketball teams in different places. That said, we can reasonably suspect that Silver's diction was a rare and unfortunate linguistic misstep rather than a sneak preview of an NBA-led campaign of annexation and destruction to come. (Or, at least, we hope.)
From a practical perspective, his comments aren't necessarily all that fresh and news-y. Global growth of interest in the NBA product has been a key league goal for years, and expansion to Europe was a big-ticket item on the to-do list of Silver's predecessor, too; remember, David Stern said two years ago that he "for sure" expected there to be multiple international NBA teams in 20 years' time. Silver acknowledging that there would need to be four European franchises on the floor from Jump Street in order for across-the-Atlantic expansion to be feasible really only constitutes a reiteration of what the league's position on the matter has been for a while now. (Ditto for Silver telling the British press that advertisements on NBA jerseys "inevitable," a line he first trumpeted last March.)
The concrete realities of actually implementing said expansion, though — locating whales willing to plant far-flung flags at a time when buy-in costs and team purchase prices are higher than ever, setting up the league-wide and organizational infrastructures needed to be able to effectively function so far removed from the NBA's day-to-day operations, adding even more travel (and thus likely ratcheting up player fatigue, a growing sticking point among players and topic of study for teams and media members) to its compressed and overloaded schedule, the quality-of-play and TV-audience-related problems involved with shifting tip-off times to accommodate local fans in foreign lands, etc. — make this an especially complicated quandary for the NBA to solve, even with two decades of lead time to suss it all out. (To say nothing of the cultural issues associated with getting four rosters' worth of players to be cool with playing overseas full-time, and with embedding the NBA into a very different sporting scene than the one stateside, as our own Eric Freeman wrote in 2013.)
The prospect seems especially questionable, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes, when there look to be a number of more suitable prospective expansion sites in North America that wouldn't pose nearly as many logistical problems as moving to Europe would. Silver clearly recognizes the mammoth undertaking of leaping all those hurdles, and he told reporters that despite his view that European expansion is something that will happen, the future he sees is still far, far off in the distance.
From Bill Wilson of BBC News:
"It is on our list as something that we continue to explore, but we do not want to get ahead of ourselves — it is something we continue to study. There is an opportunity to bring NBA basketball to Europe on a permanent basis," he says.
"It is something we ultimately want to do, but a lot of work needs to be done."
That doesn't sound too much like the sort of fervor that marked the vision of proponents of manifest destiny back in the 19th century. Let's all take some solace in that.
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