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‘India is still developing its sporting culture’: Why the NBA is betting on the cricketing nation

The planet's preeminent basketball league has gained significant audience traction in India during recent years and now reaches more than 90 million people in the country. Scott Levy, managing director of the NBA’s Asia office, says that they are only getting warmed up.

26 November 2020 Steven Impey

Getty Images

It has been more than decade since the National Basketball Association (NBA) began to seriously contemplate expanding its empire to India.

David Stern, the league’s commissioner of 29 years, first paid a visit to the country on official NBA business in 2013. His successor Adam Silver then made the trip to Mumbai a year later with a view to eventually bringing games to the nation’s second-most populous city.

In October of last year, that vision finally became a reality as the Sacramento Kings – whose owner, Vivek Ranadivé, was born in Mumbai – faced off against the Indiana Pacers in a two-part exhibition series held at the city’s NSCI Dome.

On the back of the league’s exposure among the Indian population, and its regional media partnership signed with Sony back in 2012, the NBA claims to have grown its fanbase to well over 90 million in the country.

That is some feat for an overseas league that has only recently taken games to the nation of 1.3 billion, the majority of whom are transfixed by cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL). With more of the country still to win over, internal projections suggest that India will be home to the NBA’s largest following outside the US inside the next five years.


Speaking during October's SportsPro Asia virtual summit, Scott Levy, managing director of the NBA Asia office based in Hong Kong, spoke of the colossal effort the NBA has undertaken to penetrate the Indian market. He told of how the league’s focus has primarily been to build relationships with schoolchildren and their teachers, while local initiatives are designed to educate newcomers on the values of basketball and to hopefully instil a lifelong bond with the NBA brand.

By and large, Levy says he is satisfied with the success his team has achieved in India so far, though he also pointed to some of the challenges that lie ahead if the NBA is to continue on the same growth trajectory.  

Why is India a key market for the NBA?

Scott Levy: It was more than a decade ago when we made India a priority for the NBA. Since then, we’ve focused on building our fanbase and introducing the game in different ways. About seven years ago, I was in Mumbai with commissioner Adam Silver and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé. We did a youth clinic for thousands of kids in conjunction with the Reliance Foundation and we knew there was something special that was happening there.

Participation at a young age is really important and it’s clear that the young kids really understood the game, enjoyed the experience, and the parents and teachers enjoyed the experience as well. Our goal from there on was to build the infrastructure for the sport, and to ensure that there was equipment and that teachers and coaches were continuing to improve their knowledge of the game and help connect them the kids.

How does that translate into participation?

SL: We have a pathway in place that now allows kids to play basketball from as young as five years old and really continue to play through to the NBA. It starts with a Reliance Foundation Junior NBA programme, which is free and nationwide. Kids can then move into our more advanced training, through our basketball schools programme and our partnership with Indian On Track. From there, we have the ACG NBA Jump talent search, which identifies kids to join the NBA Academy.

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé speaks to the media in Mumbai

We have now had 13 players move to the US to play basketball, including Princepal Singh, who has joined the NBA G League. The others are playing in high school or university. Last October, working with the Indian basketball federation (BFI), local governments and our media partners Sony, we brought the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers to play the first ever local games from a North American sports league.

How are you faring compared to India’s mainstay sports?

SL: It is really incredible what the IPL has done in such a short period and tremendous credit goes to anyone who is involved in that league. The IPL is less than 15 years old, while the Indian Super League (ISL) and the Pro Kabaddi League, neither of which existed just 15 years ago, are also doing very well. They now have huge media partnerships, sponsors, and millions of fans – this is all great news for us.

The Indian sporting landscape is growing along with this interest. The country has more than a billion people, with a growing middle class, increasing disposable income, and a median age of 28. We don’t see ourselves as competing with anyone.

I think the country is still early on in developing a sporting culture. Cricket, of course, goes way back, but, as with all these additional leagues, there is plenty of room for basketball in India. Our focus is on teaching kids how to play and to enjoy sport, so that they can follow it as they grow up.

In what ways are you localising NBA content in India?

SL: This is a really important component for us. When we approach any market, it is going to be unique. We want to make sure that we’re developing our brand in a way that is endemic to the local culture. These participation programmes in India are an important part of our localisation – just as important, however, is the local media piece.

By working with our media partner Sony, we’ve introduced several specific programmes, including primetime game broadcasts, the Hindi commentary, and programming specifically created for India, including NBA Around the Hoop, which is a show hosted by local influencers.

Scott Levy and his team are familiarising Indian schoolchidren with the NBA brand

Similarly, on digital, we’ve adopted our global approach and we are, on a global basis, leaders in the social media and digital space, and engaging with our fans. We’ve now tailored that to a local audience via Facebook and Instagram in particular.

Since the restart of the NBA season a few month ago, we’ve added over 120,000 new followers on Instagram in India – that’s the largest growth we’ve seen in any country in the world. Moving forward, this will be a focus for us, as we look to further localise our content across all forms of media and ensure that our content is relevant and accessible for an Indian audience.

What does the future hold for the NBA in India?

SL: No matter how long I work on India, I will always be able to say the words, ‘I still have a lot to learn about the Indian market’. There is no question that it can be a challenging market but I look at India in a similar way that I look at Asia: it’s a group of unique markets with geographic proximity.

Just as we adjust our approach between Thailand and Japan, we do the same between India’s regions – for example, between Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. In some parts of the country like Kerala, basketball is very popular while, in other areas, it is less so. Language is an important element as well, as there are more than 20 constitutionally recognised languages in the country.

What’s amazing about India, however, is the innovation and the scale of the community. We’re still relatively new in the country, yet we have more than 90 million viewers tuning into the NBA last year and more than 1.3 million users participating in our NBA Fantasy game through our partnership with Dream11.

We’ve engaged more than 11 million boys and girls across 13,000 schools through the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA progamme and now have more than three million followers on the NBA’s Hindi Facebook page. It’s hard to fathom the opportunity here, but we’re really excited about it. We’re just getting started.

The planet's preeminent basketball league has gained significant audience traction in India and now reaches more than 90 million people in the country.


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