As smooth leadership transitions go, many businesses should look to the model that the NBA has set as the league goes from David Stern to Adam Silver. From little things like the name on the league’s game balls to bigger picture issues like labor negotiations and TV deals, the NBA has been sown unity and consistency as one era ends and a new one begins, albeit with a leadership team that is certainly not new to the business of basketball, given Silver’s longtime position in league governance.
So it should come as no surprise for a sport that is all about transition that the two joined forces as the league made its annual regular season foray to Europe this past week, when the Brooklyn Nets took on the Atlanta Hawks in London. For all to see, including those reading the cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the transition game was in full force and certainly not lost in the mix was the message that the global NBA brand is continuing to grow.
While there were a smattering of stories questioning the need for a game in Europe during the middle of the regular season, the timing of the trip and the staging of the game was yet another message of consistency to send to all interested in brand NBA. Here are some thoughts as to why:
Timing: The game came at a place on the schedule where basketball traditionally hits a bit of a lull. The Christmas Day games are a memory, the All-Star Game is still in the distance, and the playoffs are even further off the casual sports fans’ radar. Dropping the game in a spot on the calendar that is just before the Super Bowl crush and in advance of a time when the Sochi Olympics will also steal some business thunder on the global stage served as a great reminder to brands and fans that the NBA holds and is growing its position around the world. A relatively quiet week in sport gave the NBA an unencumbered marketplace to talk business and basketball before the eyes of sport turn focus elsewhere for a while.
Business: In addition to providing a showcase for all the global brands the NBA has and are courting, the game gave Brooklyn a chance to more fully embrace their Barclays partners in real time, with essentially a home game for the home office. The Nets have long tried to export their brand and business beyond their borders, and with Barclays so invested in their home arena and the team, bringing the game to London gave the league as well as Nets head Brett Yormark a chance to show off the property for even more business partners, without having to export them back to Gotham.
Development: Despite its gleaming arenas, the UK remains one of the few regions without its own top flight professional league. Even with the economic challenges around The Continent, leagues still do well in many countries, and by bringing the NBA regular season to London, the talk of starting a professional league there could be pushed along. With such string TV partners already in place in the UK, making O2 Arena or other top flight venues a regular stop could be a nice carrot for the development of a UK based professional league down the line.
Leadership: While few question the leadership and vision of the NBA as a global property, it does serve as a nice reminder of the value of European brands and partners to bring a regular season game across the pond. The NFL has set its sights on Europe as a marketing tool, and the NBA talk continues to look east to China and India as the hottest spots. Not forgetting that hoops is still king in many parts of Europe and not far behind soccer in others, is very important to continued development in places where the brand is mature but still has a wide path of growth.
Expansion: There continues to be lots of talk about which sport will make the jump to be truly global, with franchises dotting the world. While most of that type of expansion remains just that…there are still too many legal and logistical issues for any league to expand outside North America…the real value in playing a regular season game abroad is in brand expansion, not team expansion. Watching a broadcast, engaging in the mobile space, and purchasing product is all important, but to bring a live, competitive regular season event to a new geographic area on a consistent basis ties all the pieces together and gives much more focus to the business. It is a lesson soccer has learned in their growth in the US; you can make all the noise you want, but to really engage you need to also have the live event, and bringing a game to the UK every year…and maybe elsewhere in the future…is the best form of expansion.
Does such a trip have its warts? Sure. The travel is not the easiest and it disrupts the flow of a team for a short period, but the teams are treated with kid gloves and are given the chance to re-engage in the US in a relatively short period of time. The lost short-term revenue, if any, us fueled by the potential of long term growth in revenue sharing categories like TV and merchandise sales, and although such a mid-season trip is not for everyone, for teams like Atlanta and Brooklyn who are looking to expand and grow their brands, it makes great sense.
In the end, the game and its experience and business moves seemed to all go smoothly, and served as a nice reminder that the NBA and its transitioning leadership are not sitting still and will continue to score in the global business community. For timing and execution, NBA London seems to have scored again.