February 02, 2011
Basketball is a global game, what with foreign stars like Dirk Nowitzki(notes) and Manu Ginobili(notes), and burgeoning popularity in the emerging markets of China and India. But despite that large international profile, the NBA remains a domestic league, with diehards in other countries having to watch games at ungodly hours just to keep pace with their North American counterparts.
So it's very hard to be a European (or Asian, or American, or South American, or Australian, or Antarctican) basketball fan and feel like you have a direct connection to the NBA. That's part of why the league is sending the Raptors and Nets to London in March for two games. Clyde Drexler is in Albion now for advanced marketing for the event, and he has some interesting thoughts on the future of an NBA team in the United Kingdom. From the Associated Press:
"If the demand continues, that could actually happen," Drexler told The Associated Press. "We're probably 10 years or so away, but that is not too farsighted to happen." [...]
"Basketball is a global sport," said Drexler, who spent more than a decade playing for the Portland Trail Blazers. "There's a demand around the world, and David Stern our commissioner is trying to facilitate that demand."
And the distance, Drexler said, won't be a problem for anyone. "Even games coming from Oregon to New York are far, but that never stopped anything," Drexler said. "It's about as far as New York to London. It's all relative. Every team has a private charter. They can go all over the world."
A lot of logistics have to be taken care of before this can happen. While Clyde is right that a flight to London isn't terribly long from the East Coast, it'd need to be part of a longer European road trip and could require some West teams to travel away from home for several weeks to ease the burden of changing time zones in rapid succession. You need more than one foreign team for this plan to work, and it's unclear how many European cities could support an NBA team. Plus, if certain observers -- including Phil Jackson -- think contraction is necessary to make the product better, than what will people think when there are two or three more teams in the league?
On top of these practical problems, though, is the fact that the NBA has been using this "maybe a decade away" line for, well, the better part of a decade. The general impression of this talk and its lack of fulfillment is that a European NBA team is actually probably farther away than the league would care to admit, more on the order of 20 or 25 years (if not more) instead of just 10.
It's hard to fault Drexler for his math here -- he's an emissary in a foreign land who had to answer this question in what I assume was a press conference or arranged interview. But the league almost certainly prepared him to answer this question, and the "10 years" answer is so established at this point that it must be a circulated talking point for NBA officials.
In that case, the NBA is not only answering a question but trying to market the league as on the cusp of an unprecedented step for a professional American sports league. However, the logistical realities of creating a European division for America's No. 3 league -- even if it's more popular internationally -- are so difficult that the creation of such an entity would seem so far off as to not be worthy of an estimated time of arrival.
Plugged-in fans know this, but it might not be an obvious fact to European fans and media. For those people, the "10 years" line isn't an estimate so much as a sign that they're almost part of the day-to-day activity of the NBA, too. To put it another way, Drexler's words assure Londoners that they're as important to NBA executives as a man in Boston with a candlelit shrine to Larry Bird; they're not just new demographics to exploit, but the future of the NBA itself. This approach may not be grounded in fact, but it's a useful tool to give European fans a direct connection to games that are played thousands of miles away.