Arnon de Mello on how the NBA is growing - and growing basketball - in Latin America

Arnon De Mello, vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America, discusses the league’s ongoing growth efforts south of the border.

Arnon de Mello on how the NBA is growing - and growing basketball - in Latin America

It is generally accepted that the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the most international of North America’s major leagues. With a network of 13 regional offices spanning Toronto to Taipei, the sun never sets on the NBA’s global empire. This year, there are a record 113 international players from a record 41 countries and territories representing NBA teams, with all 30 sides containing at least one overseas representative.

The NBA’s international complexion goes hand in hand with its sizeable overseas following. Today, NBA broadcasts are shown in 215 countries and in 49 languages. An estimated one billion people watched an NBA game during the 2015/16 season, while the league now boasts 19 international web destinations and 60 social media accounts worldwide.

In Latin America, a region where basketball has a long and storied heritage, the NBA enjoys a prominent profile. The league claims to have 50 million ‘casual fans’ and 17 million ‘avid fans’ across Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, the majority of whom fall into a younger demographic. This coming January, NBA action will return to Mexico City when the Phoenix Suns take on the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks in the space of three days. The regular season doubleheader will mark the 34th and 35th games the league has staged in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1991, and will likely underline once again the NBA’s burgeoning appeal south of the border.

As vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America, Arnon De Mello is the man charged with overseeing the league’s growth efforts across the region. Previously the NBA’s managing director for Brazil, he stepped up to replace Philippe Moggio, who left to help clean up the scandal-hit soccer governing body Concacaf as its new general secretary, in June, having spearheaded the launch of the league’s Brazilian office in 2012.

Though his remit is now broader, De Mello’s primary responsibilities are essentially the same. As head of a dedicated Latin American team of 31 staff, split across regional hubs in Rio and Mexico City and the NBA’s global headquarters in New York, he oversees marketing, television, digital media and grassroots development projects. Each of those areas feed into a single ultimate objective, however, which is to raise the profile of the NBA in the region whilst getting more kids to play basketball. “At the end of the day, that’s what we are looking for,” he says.

Ahead of the new NBA season, which tipped off last month, and shortly before the NBA opened its first Latin American retail outlet in Rio de Janeiro in late September, SportsPro caught up with De Mello to find out more about the league’s ongoing activities in one of its most important overseas regions.

SP: How are you finding your new role?

ADM: It’s been a few months now since I took over the role for Philippe, who was the previous VP for Latam. The role is overseeing all of the business that is related to Latam and that is primarily media, our media deals. Right now we’re in the midst of renewals with a lot of our partners. Some of them are in Mexico, some of them in Argentina, so that’s a big part of our job right now.

The sponsorship business is also growing very strongly in the region, and associated with that we also have the events or the activations at the games. And then another big part of our business has also been the licensing business, especially in Mexico and Brazil. In Brazil specifically we are opening the first NBA store in Latin America, so we’re very excited about that. We were able to do that because right now we have more than a handful of licensees in the country and the region. That allows us to have quality in a very broad range of products to offer to the market, which we didn't have before.

I would say that those pillars are the main focus areas right now in our region, and all of those have to do with our main objective, which is to get more kids to play basketball, to choose basketball as their primary sport. At the end of the day, that’s what we are looking for.

The NBA currently employs 17 Latin American players, including nine from Brazil and three from Argentina. How would you assess the strength of the league's brand and basketball in general in the region?

We have a few aspects that work well in our favour. One of them [is that] for most of the year we are in the same time zone, or it’s not the same but very close: one hour behind, three hours forward. That is an advantage that we have, for example, as opposed to Europe, which has a challenge there in terms of the time of the games. We’re very fortunate to be almost in the same time zone in most of our countries.

Also, many of our most important countries in the region are countries where basketball is a very mature sport, where basketball has a prominent role in the sports arena. Mexico is one example but especially Brazil and Argentina. Basketball is a very important sport. People not only know about basketball but they play basketball at school. And that is also very important for us. Our challenges are very different, in terms of putting basketballs in the hands of the kids, compared to other countries where basketball is maybe not as strong as it is in our region.

The success of Brazil's Tiago Splitter (left) and Argentina's Manu Ginóbili, both NBA champions with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, has helped raise the profile of the league in Latin America.

What are the key commercial metrics you use to gauge the strength of the NBA’s brand in the region?

That’s a very good question because the NBA was always looking to have an office in Brazil. For example, we had already people working in Mexico working for quite some time, even though the office actually opened about the same time as the office in Brazil was opened. What made us really take that leap and really invest more in the market was also our partners telling us that we should do that.

We have strong engagement from many of our global partners, and then since we’ve opened the offices in those two countries - and now, even though we don't have an office in Argentina we are very present there - we are starting to see local companies also engaging very strongly with the NBA. That’s very important for us, to have those partners working alongside us to strengthen the game.

You're in the early stages of new media partnerships with the likes of Televisa in Mexico, Globo in Brazil, and Digicel Sportsmax in the Caribbean. How are those partnerships progressing, and what is your overriding strategy: revenue, reach, or both?

This is definitely a game-changer for us, to partner with the strongest, the best media partners in our region. We have regional partnerships with ESPN, of course - that’s a very important partnership for us throughout the region - but then, country by country, we have tried to establish close relationships with the best in class.

In the case of Brazil, [it’s] Globo. When we came here, when we opened the office, we didn't have that partnership. We worked towards getting there and this was a game-changer for us in Brazil. Just this past year, for example, we increased our viewership in SportTV, which is the sports channel of Globo, by 100 per cent. Not only that, ESPN also saw an increase as well of 70 per cent in their ratings this past season. So it goes to show that once we have the right partner the games in the season, especially the play-offs and the finals, really resonate a lot in the local market and we get more of a wider reach and success comes with that.

To your point of whether we are looking for revenues or a broader reach, we are definitely always looking for the best partner in terms of reach. As you know, Globo, even though we’re not on their free-to-air channel, they give a lot of focus in their editorial side, in their sports programming. We have tremendous visibility there, so we produce a lot of content. This past year we have focused a lot on what we call the localised content, so we have somebody in Brazil, somebody in Mexico, producing stories that will resonate specifically to our local markets in Latin America.

That helps a lot. In Brazil, if you think that we have nine Brazilian players playing in the NBA, one of them might not very important for the local market in the US but for Brazil they are very important. So we have been focusing a lot on their stories inside the league as well as other things that are relevant for the local market. That makes a huge difference for us because we are able to get a lot of visibility into those free-to-air channels, not only Globo but also Televisa.

Televisa broadcast our finals games in Mexico this past season - [it was a] tremendous success. They want to increase the number of games throughout the regular season, so we see that partnership as another strategic and very important partnership for us to grow the game, the visibility, and the ratings and interest for the game.

At the end of the day, the fans are going to look for the best basketball in the world and when they do that they find us, the NBA.

Where do you see the greatest room for growth when it comes to media reach? 

I think in the most important markets we have the right partnerships in place. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are well consolidated in that sense - we don't really have more games to broadcast this year. Just to give you an idea, our partnership with ESPN throughout the region increases from two games a week to five games a week, so we will see a tremendous increase in the number of games being broadcast and also, as a consequence, the coverage that the games will have on ESPN and the other channels.

There are countries that we would like to explore more. Next to Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, Chile is one country, Colombia and eventually also Venezuela. And also we cannot forget that the Caribbean has been a fantastic story for us in the past few years with our partnership with Digicel. It has given us tremendous reach into the entire region.

Lately we have focused more on expanding our current partnerships than actually getting more partners into the mix. At the start, maybe ten years ago, the story or the line or the strategy was getting as many partners in and growing the market like that, but now we have slowly transitioned into this new phase, which is ‘now that we have the right partners in, let’s grow our relationships with them and make our game ever more present on their channels’.

What role is social media playing in your growth efforts across Latin America?

Latam is another great poster boy, if I can say, or example of social media engagement. Both Brazil and Mexico again are countries where the population in general is very tied to social media - they are very active, they spend the most hours. If you look at the countries that are represented on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Mexico and Brazil come always in the top four or five countries. Brazil is always in the top two after the United States. 

It resonates a lot here. We see this younger demographic more and more interested in our game, and I think that has a lot to do with social media because the games are played at the end of the day, at a very late time. We have seen tremendous growth in our fanbase in the youth, kids aged between 12 and 16. We’ve seen tremendous growth in that particular demographic, so we believe that this comes a lot through social media. Kids are watching the next day, playing our video games, consuming our products - this is all very important for us to keep in close touch with our fanbase.

De Mello spearheaded the launch of the NBA’s Brazilian office in 2012, before being promoted to his current role in June.

Do you see a direct correlation between social engagement and sales of officially licensed merchandise?

We do. In fact, I can attest more for Brazil because that is the market I know in and out, and just to give you an example, for our three games that we’ve hosted in Brazil, close to 100 per cent of the tickets were sold online. We know where these people are coming from, how they are consuming the NBA. We advertised for those tickets only online, only on our Facebook page, Twitter, social media and our website. We have not done any big marketing campaigns. We are always very focused on social media and that has worked out very well for us.

With the sales of products, it’s the same thing. Our online store has grown close to 100 per cent every year, and if we had more products we would sell more. That’s the idea also behind having an actual store, to showcase our products and, who knows, maybe even franchise that model to the rest of Brazil and the rest of Latin America. So we hope to see that grow into something larger and, yes, social media is at the heart of everything.

As well as the annual Global Games in Mexico City, in recent years we have seen teams from Latin America taking on NBA sides in pre-season fixtures. Are the games still the centrepiece of everything you’re trying to achieve in the region?

Yes. The strategy and the thought behind having teams from Brazil, from Argentina or eventually Mexico or other countries, play against NBA teams is to show to the country, to that fanbase from that country, that the level of basketball is not that far from the level of the NBA. And with that, I think people can be proud of what basketball is doing in their respective countries and really go to the games, be a fan of basketball first, and then as a consequence be a fan of the NBA as well. 

Because we know at the end of the day, you want to take the kids or go yourself to a game at the weekends, right, and if we don't have a strong league in these countries it makes our lives even more difficult to convince kids to play basketball, if they don't see a path to success in the future.

We are not doing this for charity. These are very competitive games - these games are part of the official calendar of the NBA, pre-season games that teams take very seriously - and we are very happy to be increasing the number of those throughout the past two or three years.

Our online store has grown close to 100 per cent every year, and if we had more products we would sell more. 

In December of 2014 the NBA entered into a strategic partnership with Brazil’s top domestic league, the Liga Nacional de Basquete (LNB). What was the thinking behind forging that relationship and are you pleased with how it’s progressed?

The data shows that wherever we have a strong league, strong teams in these countries, it’s where we do better. So its not a coincidence that basketball is so big in China or that the NBA is big in China. The league there does very well, they have a competitive league with the CBA. It’s the same thing with a lot of countries in Europe, right, if you take Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey - those are very strong basketball countries where we do very well as well.

Then you have Brazil. This has helped us a lot, in terms of having a strong league partner in the country, so people can watch the game and follow. In Brazil, and I guess in a lot of the countries besides the US, the game is played in your youth. Its not the school system that really takes that role in the grassroots level, it’s the clubs. Whereas in the States it’s done in the high schools and the university system, that’s where most if not all of the athletes come out from.

In Brazil, you play a little bit in school but then you have to transition into the clubs if you want to take this sport seriously. That’s the importance of us being close to them and helping them with our best practices, making the teams and the championship stronger so that we have a stronger environment and a stronger ecosystem around basketball.

That has helped a lot for the NBA. Again, it’s no coincidence that we have been growing so much in terms of our ratings or sales of our products. It’s because we have more and more fans and, at the end of the day, the fans are going to look for the best basketball in the world and when they do that they find us, the NBA.

De Mello was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.