Thirty years ago, David Stern inherited a struggling National Basketball Association (NBA) as Commissioner, taking over a relatively modest league with a small audience in need of a shake-up on the inside and some transformation for the public’s eye outside.
Stern did just that, and so much more. He added seven expansion teams, helped the NBA become one of the most prolific sports organizations around the world, launched the WNBA, created the NBA Cares programme, and expanded the league’s multimedia presence.
But many would say that his biggest accomplishment was to make the NBA the most globally popular sports league out of America. When he took over, NBA games were broadcast in two countries; by the time he retired, 215 countries in the planet had live NBA access.
The number of international players in the league grew from eight in 1984 to 92 in 2014. The NBA opened offices in 16 markets worldwide, including London, Moscow, Beijing, Paris, Hong Kong, and apna
Mumbai, too. NBA exhibition and regular season games were held in over 40 cities around the world
, from London and Mexico City to Shanghai, Taipei, and Rio de Janeiro.
Twenty-seven years ago, Stern visited China only with an NBA demo tape in his hand with a faint idea to expose the game to the world’s largest population. Over two decades later, the Chinese economy has become one of the world’s strongest and the NBA has their biggest international fanbase – and their largest office outside of the United States – in China. The country in many ways symbolized the realization of Stern’s global vision.
But Stern’s arrival to the world’s second-largest population – India – took a bit longer. Already a country dominated by Cricket, the NBA finally began to make significant inroads in India toward the latter part of the last decade. Stern visited India for the first time last year
to water the first seeds of the NBA’s growth in the country. NBA India had an office in Mumbai and NBA coaches and trainers had a presence around the country. Stern saw the potential in one of basketball’s last international frontiers and prepared for the future.
“India, we were watching,” he told DNA India
, “This market is growing at such a rapid pace and we know we have an opportunity (to grow) here. We decided to be here. We only go to [a country] if we are committed.”
SILVER TAKES OVER: INDIA IN HIS SIGHTS?
Now, as Stern passes on the baton to Adam Silver -- who becomes the NBA’s fifth commissioner -- he also passes on the seeds of commitment that were sown in India. And if Stern’s legacy in the NBA’s globalization was symbolized by China, Silver’s mission could become to do the same for the tricky, yet exciting Indian market.
Silver was quizzed about the NBA’s future in India at the 2013 All Star Game
, and the incoming Commissioner made it clear that the country could be a major part of the league’s future plans. “… Absolutely we’re open to opening an academy similar to what we have done in China
… In terms of growth in India, I think we’re a ways away from scheduling a preseason or regular season game there. But we’re continuing to grow our digital business, our sponsorship business, our television business, same as we’ve developed markets throughout the world, and we’re encouraged by the growth of the game, the participation by young boys and girls there. So it’s another market of well over a billion people. And we’re very hopeful that the game will continue to grow there.”
Silver will inherit the NBA’s grassroots initiatives in India – chiefly the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Programme
– that will work from the bottom up to introduce basketball as a regular physical activity for school-children across the country. Over a dozen NBA stars and former legends
have visited India already on official capacity to interact with the young fans. And Stern’s pet-project – NBA Cares – has been well-operational in the country, too.
A VISION IN INDIA
Silver will also reap the fruits of Stern’s last major responsibility as NBA Commissioner: overseeing the sale of the Sacramento Kings to Indian-born software entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive. Ranadive immediately opens up a whole host of new opportunities for NBA in India. From representing Indian culture at Sacramento
to dreaming of bringing a Kings exhibition game to India
, Ranadive has brought his forward-thinking approach to the group of NBA owners, and lying forward in the NBA’s future is the large, mostly-untapped Indian audience.
As he ends his 30-year tenure, Stern will remain connected to his vision in India. He is expected to invest more time working with the Reliance Foundation in India
and help the grassroots efforts of spreading basketball to over 500,000 children in the nation.
The future of the NBA will be about technology, further expansion, and further refining the world’s finest basketball league. And, it will be about India. It will up to the next man up – Adam Silver – to turn the league's ambitions in India into a basketball revolution. With Cricket at the helm, India may never emulate China’s NBA fandom, but there are hundreds of thousands of young athletes and fans in this country ready to embrace the game and help make the NBA’s vision a reality.
Karan Madhok is a blogger for NBA India and owner of the @hoopistani blog. The views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Basketball Association, its affiliates and/or its partners.