The National Basketball Association (NBA) might have been turning its attention to Africa in recent years, but continuing to bubble away in the background has been the league’s business in Latin America.
When Arnon de Mello took over as the NBA’s managing director for the region in 2016, he was tasked with continuing to grow the league’s popularity in a market already hooked on the sport. At the time, the NBA claimed to have around 50 million ‘casual fans’ and 17 million ‘avid fans’ across Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia. Today, De Mello tells SportsPro that the league has “basically doubled the number of fans” in the Latin American market.
“What we have done is really double down on content, content distribution, and focusing on participation,” says de Mello, who leads a team split across regional hubs in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. “It’s been great for our region. It is a region that is passionate about basketball, that plays basketball, and that can actually watch our games. We're in the same time zone, so that helps a lot in terms of consuming our live games.”
Indeed, Latin America is one of the NBA’s strongest international markets when it comes to viewership. During the 2020/21 regular season, Brazil’s Bandeirantes ranked second and Televisa-owned Canal Nu9ve in Mexico sixth among the league’s overseas broadcasters in terms of average viewers. Also in Mexico, average viewership for the first round of the recently concluded playoffs was up 24 per cent compared to last season, while the number of unique viewers reached had climbed by 31 per cent.
Yet, in recent times, the NBA has been moving beyond traditional content distribution in Latin America in what De Mello describes as a conscious shift towards meeting fans where they are, rather than dictating to them where to go to find the league. That has involved “content around the game”, De Mello says, such as music, fashion and lifestyle-related pieces, as well as collaborations with some of the region’s soccer players who themselves are basketball fanatics.
Our job is to promote the game more, promote the healthy lifestyle that basketball brings, and try to incentivise kids to play and to pick up a basketball because the infrastructure is here.
In addition to that, though, the NBA has been experimenting with putting its live games on new platforms. First, in February, it was revealed that the league had expanded its relationship with marketing partner Budweiser to live stream matches via the beer giant’s social media channels in Brazil. At the time of the announcement, De Mello said that it could be a precursor to similar arrangements with other sponsors in Latin America.
Then, in May, it was confirmed that Alexandre “Gaules” Borba Chiqueta, a Brazilian streamer with close to three million followers on Twitch, was going to show games on the Amazon-owned gaming platform. That collaboration already appears to be bearing fruit, with Gaules’ 15 livestreams during the regular season and playoffs generating nearly four million total views, more than 3.5 million hours watched and peaking at over 156,000 viewers for a single game. Gaules is already pencilled in to stream more than 100 NBA games during the 2021/22 campaign.
“It's not necessarily one communication to millions of people, it's thousands of different communications to thousands of different people,” De Mello says, commenting on how the NBA’s evolving content distribution strategy benefits its partners. “So it's not one single message through one single distribution medium, it's a lot of different things. This makes it very challenging, but also very exciting because you're talking through multiple channels in very different ways.”
Perhaps most important to the NBA is that 71 per cent of Gaules’ audience is under 25 years old and 90 per cent under the age of 30. Reaching younger fans will no doubt contribute towards the NBA’s goal of continuing to grow participation in Latin America, where the league currently offers its Jr NBA programme across the region, including in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Uruguay.
Of the 107 international players from 41 countries listed on NBA rosters at the start of the 2020/21 season, there were three from Brazil and one from Argentina. The league does have the foundations in place to grow that, with the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico providing a platform for high school-age prospects in the region to hone their skills. Since the facility opened in 2017, 14 participants have committed to NCAA Division One schools in the US.
With the NBA finals now in the books, SportsPro asked De Mello for an update on the league’s progress in Latin America, while there was also time to discuss its content distribution strategy for the region, and how the organisation was able to keep fans in the market engaged despite the challenges of Covid-19.
Arnon de Mello, the NBA's senior vice president and managing director for Latin America (Photo by Marko Fortes)
How would you assess the strength of the league’s brand and basketball in general in the region today compared to when you started your role?
Basketball is a is relevant sport in our region, a sport that people understand, people play, and that has actually had success in international tournaments. If you look at Mexico, Mexico has more basketball courts than football fields, which is an amazing stat. In Brazil, all public and private schools have a basketball court. Our job is really to promote the game more, promote the healthy lifestyle that basketball brings to both boys and girls, and try to incentivise kids to play and to pick up a basketball because the infrastructure is here.
We have other regions in the world where that's not the case, and that's our main roadblock. An example is India. It's a huge country, but we still need to do a lot of legwork there to introduce the game to the population, especially to kids. Here, we don't have that. We have an infrastructure that is ready.
How does the way that the NBA approaches the Latin America market differ to the league’s strategy for other parts of the world?
We focus in areas that we really make a difference right away. Our first phase was focusing on our live game and distributing that. Not too long ago, we would have maybe one or two games a week on linear TV. Today, we have 15-plus games a week, both in Brazil and Mexico, and across Latin America. We have great regional partners in DirecTV, ESPN, and then we have our partners in both Mexico and Brazil that are huge media companies – Televisa in Mexico, Globo and Bandeirantes in Brazil.
Given our proximity to the game, to the American culture, we are focusing on brand activations and fan experiences. That has also been a great success for us in bringing not only global games both to Brazil and Mexico, but then we moved into more of the approach of activating around the NBA House concept, which is a place where we activate with our partners and fans. We took that to the next level here in Rio in 2016, and now we do it around finals. Unfortunately with the pandemic we weren't able to do that as an in-person event this year, but we did a digital format. We had more than 100,000 people sign up for that.
Mexico is our next frontier, I believe. We are launching a G League team from Mexico City, Capitanes, very soon. This is the first franchise outside of the US and Canada, so it’s been a great experience for us. Again, [we are] focusing on the entire funnel and the entire ecosystem of basketball, from starting out at Jr NBA, moving up to the NBA basketball schools, then to the academy, which becomes more elite…and then we have the G League team. So you can see we have the entire ecosystem covered in that sense.
That has been the focus of our region, which may differ a bit depending on what other regions you're looking at.
A lot of the activations you’ve done in the market in recent times have been in partnership with Budweiser, including streaming games on their social platforms in Brazil. What role are they playing in helping you grow your reach in the region?
Budweiser is a great example, but it doesn't restrict only to them. We’re on the second or third renewal with them, so they have been a partner for a long time in LATAM, as well as a few other regions, including the US, but this is a local partnership. It has evolved from licensing our brand to put on their beer cans, to launching a clothing line two years ago, to now going into content, which I think is the very different piece of this partnership right now. I haven't seen it around the world where marketing partners or sponsors are doing that.
It's been great, because now we have the Bud NBA games, and it has their look and feel. It's been a great experience, because it's not specific to one particular platform, it's not only on linear TV, it's not only on cable. It's across linear, cable, digital, their social media, our social media, partner and influencer social media, so it's everywhere.
The big motive behind this partnership is they're helping us meet our fanbase where they are, where our fans are, and not where we are. So we're not saying, ‘come to us and watch the game here’. We're saying, ‘where are you?’ and ‘we're going to reach you where you are’.
That has been a great innovation that this partnership brought to them, because they can now speak directly to their consumers as well as to our fans, and in this different format.
You also recently teamed up with Brazilian streamer Gaules to show matches on his Twitch channel. What was the thinking behind that and what do you see as being the advantages?
It’s a very interesting one. He has the channel with the second largest amount of hours watched in the world, he happens to be from Brazil, he streams other types of games – not necessarily NBA 2K and sports games, other types of games. But he has a very large and engaged fanbase.
Through that partnership we're reaching a totally different audience that is not used to – or doesn't watch – TV anymore. They consume content in a different way. Gaules was also what we call a ‘casual fan’. He knew about the NBA, he would watch games around the finals, he knew about our most famous players, but wasn't an avid NBA fan. That was very interesting because his fanbase wasn't either, and they started to watch the games together.
It's not that digital is going to solve everything, but it's certainly a way for us to really focus and learn. I think in a digital world there's a lot that we can test and it's working well.
His first stream of the NBA live game was very interesting. He was talking to his friends and to his community about different things, not even game-related. And by the last game of the playoffs that he streamed, it was completely different. By then he knew a lot of stuff that he learned with the community.
These types of things are very interesting, because we really don't control anything, they do their own thing. It's not tied to just two hours, they talk a lot about the game before or after, but not in this way that we're used to seeing. It's not a pre-game show, they talk throughout the day. They're streaming another game and then they’re talking about the NBA and what's coming up. So it’s a very interesting, new dynamic.
On digital we also stream our games on our YouTube channels and other YouTube channels, and the audience he brought was not an audience that was watching our games elsewhere, because our numbers continue to grow, and his number was additive to that.
Are you able to give any insight into how the deal with Gaules was structured? Did he pay a fee to acquire the rights to the games?
Basically it's an exchange. Here's the content, take it, see what you can do with it. We get the distribution and they get the content. So the initial phase is structured this way, very simple. Again, for us, we're able to introduce a few of our partners here and there. But, again, in a very different way.
In what other ways have you been trying to maintain engagement with your Latin American fanbase given that the last year and a half has prevented in-person activations?
Last year, when we took a break because of the pandemic, we had to double down and accelerate all of our efforts that we were doing on the digital front, be it from content distribution to content production. So we did a lot in terms of training kids in a virtual way, so we had a lot of coaches, current players, former players, come in every day and give a basketball or just physical class online. In terms of content, we opened up League Pass for people to watch classic games, so we did a lot to engage with our audience while they were at home and thirsty for entertainment and content.
When we came back we just continued to do the things that were working well, and rethinking a couple of our platforms that we knew that for quite some time we wouldn't be able to activate on. Global games is one of them, we're not going to do it this year because of the pandemic. NBA House is another one. So working more and more on the digital front. It's not that digital is going to solve everything, but it's certainly a way for us to really focus and learn. I think in a digital world there's a lot that we can test and it's working well.
The NBA last staged a game in Mexico City in late 2019 (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
What are your priorities for the Latin America market over the next 12 months and beyond as things start to open up again?
One project we had to stall until we're better placed in terms of what's going on around the world is our Jr NBA programme that we're introducing in both Mexico and Brazil to teach physical teachers in public schools our NBA curriculum to coach basketball. With that, we hope to bring the NBA to thousands of schools through the coaches and promote the participation of boys and girls in the game of basketball. It's something that we had to take a break on because schools were not functioning, they all went virtual. We’re now going back to that, so that's going to be a big project for us in the next 12 months.
Second is to continue to do even more on the content front, to produce more and more content around our game, but not specifically around our live games. Our live games, mostly, all of them are distributed. It's a lot that we have been doing already, but our live games are finite products, so we can only do so much there. So our next frontier is really to go beyond that, and continue to reach our audience and our fanbase in other places and in other manners, be it lifestyle, be it through fashion, music is something we're working very closely on. Our Latin artists, they love basketball, there's a big connection there.
So we're planning on leveraging those connections around sports in general, and music, culture and going in that direction. That's the focus for the next 12 months.
Arnon de Mello, the NBA’s senior vice president and managing director for Latin America, gives an update on the league’s progress in the region, and explains how the organisation’s approach to content is feeding into its wider goals to grow basketball in the market.