NBA’s Mark Tatum is working to expand league’s international footprint

·6 min read

On the day of the NBA draft, Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum takes the subway from the league’s headquarters in Manhattan to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the event.

The subway stop at Atlantic Avenue is the same stop Tatum used to depart when he attended Brooklyn Tech for high school just four blocks from Barclays.

The circle of life is sometimes by design and coincidence.

After growing up in a diverse section of the country, Tatum, the son of a Chinese mom who grew up in Vietnam and a Jamaican dad, is charged with overseeing the NBA’s international growth, partnerships and some of the league’s top-priority social justice initiatives. For the past 18 months, he did it while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To get through the bubble and to get through all the social unrest and social justice issues and racial inequality issues that we dealt with during that time and then to play an entire another season and to be here in the 2021-22, our 75th anniversary season, required a lot of teamwork and a lot of communication,” Tatum said. “The frequency of that communication increased substantially during that time. There’s been this cooperative spirit amongst all those involved to keep this league moving forward.

Mark Tatum has been the NBA's deputy commissioner since 2014, and his responsibilities cover a wide range of league operations.
Mark Tatum has been the NBA's deputy commissioner since 2014, and his responsibilities cover a wide range of league operations.

"I’ve been incredibly inspired and proud of that effort by everybody involved in making sure that we could continue to do what we do which is put on great basketball games for fans around the world."

Tatum was appointed deputy commissioner by Silver. Tatum is also the league’s chief operating officer, and his responsibilities cover a wide range of league operations: marketing, partnerships, licensing, international, team marketing and business operations and the G League.

His background makes him well-suited to handle that. Tatum, one of the highest-ranking minorities in North American pro sports, worked for Major League Baseball in corporate sponsorships and took a similar job with the NBA in 1999, and his expanding role began to include the league’s international business. It was a natural fit.

“We did travel when I was younger,” Tatum said. “I was fortunate to be able to travel the world. I love new cultures. I was the product of a multi-cultural household and it was a melting pot. I’m always very comfortable in environments like that. That’s why I love going to different places and finding out about local cultures. There is a curiosity. Given that both of my parents were born outside of the United States, I’ve always had that ingrained in me.”

The game’s international growth continues to expand on two fronts. For the eighth consecutive season, more than 100 international players are on NBA rosters, including 10 from nine countries on the Toronto Raptors. In three consecutive seasons, a foreign-born player won the league's MVP award (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019 and 2020 and Denver’s Nikola Jokic in 2021), and a record-tying three international players made the All-NBA first team last season (Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Dallas’ Luka Doncic).

“It truly has become a league where the best players in the world no matter what country they’re from are playing in this league, and that’s what’s driving the international interest so greatly,” Tatum said.

While the NBA might not be able to overtake soccer – or even in cricket – in some countries, its goal is to expand its footprint internationally. Wireless technology used to watch games on mobile devise combined with offices, stories and basketball academies around the world make that possible.

Tatum was also instrumental in starting the Basketball Africa League, which ended its first season in May, and opened NBA Africa, an operation with investments from Grant Hill, Dikembe Mutombo, Junior Bridgeman, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and prominent African companies. It added Barack Obama as a strategic advisor, and the entity is valued at $1 billion.

“That’s going to allow us to grow our footprint on the continent, including opening new offices, academies and really showing how we can utilize sport as an opportunity to drive economic growth and create jobs on the continent and to create a new economy around the business of sports,” Tatum said.

The Mexico City Capitanes will play their first G League season in 2021-22 in Fort Worth, Texas, but will play in Mexico City when COVID travel restrictions relax.

The league has long sought to take advantage of Mexico City’s population of nearly 22 million and the inroads into South America.

“It’s a very important market for us,” Tatum said, adding, “There’s also a large Mexican-American population in the U.S., which is fueling our Latino, Hispanic interest.”

A portion of the job that wasn’t as prominent 18 months ago and is now is social and racial justice. Tatum is the president of the NBA’s Social Justice Task Force. Since the start of the pandemic, the league started the NBA Foundation, a $300 commitment from teams over 10 years to help drive economic opportunity and empowerment in the Black community. In the first year, $11 million in grants were awarded to non-profit organizations, including DC Central Kitchen, Hopeworks Camden, YouthForce Nola and Detroit Employment Solutions Cooperation.

In partnership with the National Basketball Players Association, the league helped create the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition led by longtime civil rights attorney James Cadogan. The group supports federal legislation that would have an impact on policy – such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Equal Act, the latter which was passed by the U.S. House to eliminate federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and power cocaine.

“We took those moments and feelings from the last year and a half and we now translated it into institutional organizations that are taking action and are equipped and have the resources to actually turn those feelings into tangible actions,” Tatum said.

The NBA this season will also continue its support of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with paid fellowship programs at the league and team offices for undergraduate and graduate students.

“When rational people sit around the table and say these are issues that need to be resolved and addressed,” Tatum said, “the NBA, our players and our teams can play a productive role in moving that conversation forward.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA's Mark Tatum is man behind league's effort to rival soccer globally