The visit of the NBA to London on Monday, in the form of a preseason friendly between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz, could be seen as an important step in the global growth of the American sports franchise.
Not only did the action on the court deliver in almost script-perfect fashion — with British-national Luol Deng top-scoring on the night and a buzzer-beating basket from rookie James Johnson sealing a 102-101 win for Chicago — but crucially, for the first time in the three-year history of the fixture, the attention from the British media matched the passion of the sell-out crowd. Coverage of the game was handled by the BBC along with all major British newspapers which, on a day when NBA commissioner David Stern announced the franchise’s intention to play a league game in London within two years, added to a feeling of gathering momentum of interest. Check out CNN’s courtside view. Sophie Goldschmidt, managing director for the NBA in the Middle East and Africa, told CNN that with Bulls small forward Luol Deng potentially leading the line for Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics, there was an opportunity to be exploited. Watch CNN’s interview with David Stern. “It’s a sport that is continuing to grow, it’s the second most popular sport for under 18’s in the UK and we see the passion, especially surrounding Luol, when we come here.
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“So many international players take part in our league with over 80 players from 31 different countries and our games are broadcast in 250 countries — there’s a demand from fans for more, whether this is seeing the real thing or with grass-root events and we want to continue growing the game in the broadest sense.” The NBA’s plan for expanding their fan base worldwide is ambitious and has long-term goals, according to Goldschmidt. “We have completed over 65 events in 30 different cities across Europe [in 2009] and the success can be judged by television ratings, press attention, take up of tickets and revenues incomes — but we want the growth to be sustainable; engaging as many fans as possible with the sport of basketball. “After football, basketball is the most international sport there is. We have close relationships with the NFL and Premier League, in fact we met with the Premier League’s chief executive Richard Scudamore to discuss cross-promotional opportunities in the future.” Oliver Holt, sport columnist for British newspaper The Daily Mirror, admitted there had been progress but thought the NBA could go further to ensure a more permanent presence outside of America. “I think games like these do bring new audiences but further down the line, and I know the NBA are thinking about this in a vague way, I’m sure there’s enough demand to have an NBA team based in London. I don’t think we’re too far away from that. “Demand for NBA coverage in the media has definitely increased recently because basketball fans, demographically speaking, are young, so it’s a very attractive audience for editors fighting ageing readerships.” One young fan who had been attracted to the game was England and Tottenham Hotspur soccer player Jermaine Defoe. “I’m a Bulls fan, a lot of my friends and family are massive basketball fans,” Defoe, 27, told CNN from his courtside seat. “I used to play at school with my friends so it’s great to see a game like this in London as the amount of people here shows the interest in the NBA is out there.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen an NBA game live but I’d love to see more — next time I want to see Kobe Bryant here!” Defoe’s wish may come true sooner than he thinks if the globalization of the NBA, along with other sport franchises of international interest, continue their expansion.