For the past six years the National Basketball Association (NBA) has hosted a regular season game at London’s O2 Arena to much acclaim. So successful has the NBA London Game been that Ben Morel, managing director for the NBA in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), believes the NBA “could sell out multiple, multiple games” in London and, for that matter, in Europe.
The NBA’s relationship with the British capital began with a 1993 exhibition between the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. Further non-competitive fixtures featured sporadically in London in ensuing years but it was not until 2011 that a regular season matchup was first played in Europe.
The first regular season games in London pitted the New Jersey Nets against the Toronto Raptors, with the Nets sweeping the two-game series. Since then the planet’s preeminent basketball league has hosted one game per year and gone from strength to strength as a highlight of the British sporting calendar.
The next edition of the game takes place on 11th January, with the young stars of the Philadelphia 76ers taking on the high-flying Boston Celtics. Ahead of the event, Morel explains why he sees the annual London stop as an occasion for Europe, not just the UK, and discusses the possibility of expanding the concept to new territories.
SportsPro: The 2018 NBA London Game will be the eighth regular season game played in London. How do you feel that it has developed from both a fan and organisers’ point of view?
Ben Morel: First of all it will be the eighth regular season game that we have played in London and the NBA London Game is amazing even - not just for London and the UK but for Europe as a whole.
I think that over the years it has evolved from being a London event to now, for us, what we would see as our European All-Star [Game]. That is how we see it both from a fan and a business commercial standpoint.
From our fans the demand for this game and tickets is huge – not only in London and the UK but from overseas [fans] wanting to attend this game. From an activation standpoint our broadcasters – whether it’s BT Sport here [in the UK] or other partners on the continent – are really using the London game as one of their New Year platforms.
There are a lot of platforms all year round in the NBA season but this is one of the biggest ones for all of our European broadcast [partners] and our European sponsorship.
We announced recently that Nike will be the presenting sponsor of the game. This coincides with their new partnership with the NBA: the new jerseys, footwear, apparel lines. The London game is the European platform for Nike to activate around the partnership.
Retired soccer star Thiery Henry talks with fashion designer Oswald Boeteng at the 2017 NBA London Game between the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets
You sold out next year’s game within a couple of hours of tickets going on sale. With such demand do you have any plans to expand the series to include more games?
To be fair the demand is so big that we could sell out multiple, multiple games. For us it is more to do with a logistical and resource standpoint that we believe in having one really successful game. This allows us to activate as much as we can across Europe and that has been a positive.
I would love to do more [games] but at the same time there are only so many resources that we can actually dedicate to this, and we are very happy with the results.
The NBA London Game is obviously very popular in Europe. What is the opinion in America of having competitive games in London, and also Mexico? Do home fans resent the fact that that they are losing a fixture?
This is definitely something that we have to factor when you make a decision. Our calendar means that we have got 82 games in the regular-season and so it is obviously not the same level of commitment that it would be for the other [major] leagues.
Both teams this year – whether it is the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers – are extremely focused on showcasing their brand, team and franchise on a global scale. This event enables them to do that.
How important do you feel it is from a marketing point of view that the games are competitive, as opposed to exhibition events?
It obviously adds to the authenticity [of the game]. Even if it is just one game a year, our objective here is to showcase to our fans in the arena, our broadcasters across the region, our corporate partners or business prospects what the true NBA experience is.
You cannot get nearer to that experience than at the NBA London Game.
A lot of this is, of course, thanks to the state of the art O2 arena that really helps us replicate what the experience in the states would be like. For us it is the crème de la crème of showing what the true NBA experience is.
The O2 Arena has been your London home since the first game in 2011. Have you thought about playing games in any other venues in the UK or in Europe?
London has for years served as the perfect host for the game. It is a great market. We have a lot of demand, especially in the UK, to bring in more games and also from European cities like Paris, for example, which has been waiting for [an NBA game] for a long time.
There is a lot of demand but at this moment of time we are extremely happy with our experience here every year. We would love to expand but for the time being we are happy with where we are.
Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner and Denver Nuggets' Jusuf Nurkic justle for the ball in last years competition
Are you on a year-to-year rolling contract in London or do you have a specific amount of games contracted over the next few years?
It is a rolling thing but it is a really established event now. This game has gone from strength to strength and we see it as our European All-Star match for our business. It is a great event for us to activate but at the same time this not just what we do for the entire year.
We have the start of season, Christmas Day – where we own the sporting calendar on that day, as well as the All-Star weekend and the finals of the off-season. The NBA really is an all-year activation.
At the same time we are planning to bring other events to the country such as NBA Zone or the underground exhibition NBA Crossover.
How are you going about building a fanbase in the UK when, for some of them, there aren’t many natural points of contact with basketball?
There is actually more than what people think [in the UK]. Basketball is a global universal sport; wherever you go there will be a hoop in a gym with a ball waiting for you. While we may be a North American sports league basketball is a truly a universal global sport, including in the UK.
We have started with two angles. One is to make the game accessible and we have done that by making an NBA Sunday game available at 8.30pm every week [in the UK]. We also have a lot of our highlights programmes and content free-to-view on our social media [platforms] to drive people back to our broadcast. We are quite unique in our approach versus other rights holders in terms of how open and embracing of social media the NBA is.
Last but not least, it is all about putting basketballs in the hands of the kids. It doesn’t matter whether it is with the school curriculum or the junior NBA programmes that we run with Basketball England. We want to expand that programme dramatically over the next few years and put basketballs in as many hands as possible.
As a result we have seen our NBA Sunday ratings double last year and we have got 1.4 million likes on our UK Facebook page. The UK is the second market from a merchandising standpoint now. The younger generation – the millennials – are really embracing the NBA through social media and merchandise.
We have in fact organised our connected jerseys with Nike in September with fantastic results so far. Now you can buy your jersey and put your phone next to the drop tag and you will get highlights of your favourite players. We feel very confident about our prospects, whether they are in the UK or Europe.
The court at 2017 NBA London Game at the O2 Arena
The NBA recently announced partnerships with Müller and Nike for the NBA London Game. What activations do the sponsors have planned for the build-up to and during the event?
Müller is specifically a nationwide promotion in retail, which for us is important because it really helps us target a brand new audience to our game. It has the right message to the youth and will hopefully get them excited about basketball. Not only the London game but the actual sport.
All of this coincides with the global launch of Nike’s partnership with NBA. They have great ambassadors like Kyrie Irving from the Boston Celtics coming over. We will do things from retail experiences and visits, fan engagement.
There is certainly going to be a wider array of activities in the marketplace in a way that only Nike knows how to do. We are very excited about that and they will be a fantastic partner to further expand the game.
What in your opinion is unique about the NBA London Game?
It is as close as you can get to an NBA experience: whether you are in the arena or watching it on BT Sports or across our European broadcasters.
This year we have the Boston Celtics, who are top of the Eastern Conference. They have had a fantastic start to the season. They are up against three-times champions the Philadelphia 76ers. Both teams have great international talent and are pushing for a place in the play-offs.