With Africa’s youth demographic providing a huge potential source of both fans and players for professional basketball, the US’s National Basketball Association (NBA) has ambitious plans for expansion across the continent, as David Thomas reports.
With less than a second remaining in the final game of the precariously balanced NBA play-offs, the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard stormed down the touchline and unleashed an arcing shot towards the hoop.
As the game-ending buzzer sounded, the ball bounced four times on the rim before rolling in, sparking joyous pandemonium among the home supporters and a 4-3 series win for the Raptors.
For Joel Embiid, the 2.13-metre-tall Cameroonian centre for the defeated Philadelphia 76ers, the 92-90 defeat was hard to take.
The Yaoundé-born star wept as he pondered how his bid to qualify for the NBA Conference finals had been thwarted by millimetres. But for the NBA’s executives – including the Raptors’ Nigerian president Masai Ujiri – Leonard’s “movie moment” was a perfect snapshot of heart-stopping drama that will help to sell basketball far beyond its US stronghold.
As the NBA renews its multi-million dollar push into the African sports market – launching a new league on the continent, hosting US teams in flagship South African fixtures and setting up training academies and youth programmes – local stars such as Embiid offer an unparalleled opportunity to win over new fans and boost the commercial potential of the brand.
“Some of the best players in the NBA have come from Africa. They’ve all had an influence and made their mark, contributed to the franchise and won championships,” says Amadou Gallo Fall, vice-president and managing director of NBA Africa and newly announced president of the Basketball Africa League.
“There is tremendous opportunity for basketball development on the continent. Not just from a talent development standpoint but also to grow the NBA business.
“There’s a potential to grow the fan base because there’s over 1bn people, a vast majority being made up of the youth demographic. We are a youth brand – this is an exciting place for us to be.”
At the heart of the plans to win over the continent is the Basketball Africa League, which the NBA is launching in conjunction with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in January 2020.
Twelve professional teams from across the continent will vie for supremacy. Six teams will come from Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco – countries with a strong basketball heritage and robust talent pools, infrastructure and fan interest.
The other six will qualify via a FIBA-run tournament organised between September and October. Fall, a former scout and director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks, says that the new league will build on the substantial efforts that the NBA has put into grassroots development in Africa over the last decade.
“When we opened the [Johannesburg] office in 2010 the main goal was to make sure we made the game accessible.
“We focused on the grassroots to offer young people a chance to participate in the game. We launched our junior NBA leagues across the continent and we also launched an NBA Academy Africa in Senegal two years ago to create more predictable pathways that you see in other parts of the world. The Basketball Africa League is really the next logical step in terms of milestones.”
Commercial slam dunks
The new league aims to capitalise on a growing appetite for sports content as Africa’s emerging consumers increase their leisure spend and gain access to TVs and smartphones. The sports industry in the Middle East and Africa is expected to grow 6.4% in the three to five years from 2018, according to industry participants polled by PwC, an improvement on the steady 5.8% growth recorded in the previous cycle.
While youth participation is vital and bringing star players closer to the public is a driving factor, Fall says that commercial considerations are also at the forefront of the African expansion.
The NBA is hoping to augment its runaway commercial success in the United States – the organisation pulled in $8bn in revenues last season, according to Forbes – by attracting international brands and emerging African companies to partner the new competition.
“Companies are looking for ways to showcase products and face consumers. Our players are global icons who speak to the youth, which is the segment most products, companies and industries want to speak to.
“We already have a lot of interest from marquee companies and brands from around the world – there are food and drinks companies, but also telcos, apparel companies, energy companies. Its really cross-sector because this is going to be an exciting property.”
Corporate sponsors, mostly US-based, spent an estimated $1.12bn on the NBA this season according to IEG/ESP, a division of ad agency WPP.
The NBA is preparing to relax rules to allow franchises to independently sell international sponsorship rights from next season to sponsors outside the US and Canada, according to reports, offering the potential for new tie-ups.
Executives believe there is significant scope for commercial expansion – global business spending on sports sponsorship is set to grow by 4% to £44bn in 2019, according to a report from agency Two Circles.
Fall says that as well as attracting African brands, the new league hopes to extend partnerships with the NBA’s established US-based sponsors to Africa.
NBA ran a series of development camps with Coca-Cola’s Sprite brand from 2009–15 in multiple African countries, and its $1bn, eight-year apparel deal with Nike and an ongoing partnership with ball maker Spalding offer obvious partnership extensions for the African push.
Eyes on the prize
But for many would-be sponsors, interest could depend on the audience reach of the new league. The NBA’s multi-year deal with South Africa-based SuperSport across the continent was superseded in 2016 by a deal that made Econet the NBA’s official broadcaster on the continent, offering over 500 games a year.
NBA programming is currently also available for paying subscribers of Canal+ in Francophone Africa and ZAP TV in Angola and Mozambique. But a key part of the NBA’s TV strategy is to make some content available via free-to-air in a bid to attract new and casual fans.
“Free-to-air has always been a key pillar for us, even when we had partnerships with SuperSport on pay TV… and now increasingly with the proliferation of mobiles and smartphones that’s another avenue where YouTube comes into play. Most of the national broadcasters in key markets are showing our product on free-to-air.”
Econet’s free-to-air Kwesé Free Sports shows games in select, mostly Anglophone countries. And in March, the NBA announced the launch of a YouTube channel dedicated to fans in sub-Saharan Africa, which featured two live games per week in prime time for the rest of the 2018-19 season, including the playoffs, conference finals and finals.
Broadcasters for the Basketball Africa League are yet to be announced. NBA has also drummed up interest by hosting three sold-out Africa Games featuring US-based franchises in Johannesburg in 2015 and 2017 and Pretoria in 2018.
“We’ve seen a tremendous response. It’s very interesting to see interactions from all parts of Africa, fans watching and commenting on games… the main goal is to continue building the fan base,” says Fall.
Yet winning over African viewers hooked on soccer’s Premier League and La Liga will be a huge challenge. Hundreds of millions tune into Premier League games on the continent every year, while a GeoPoll survey of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda estimated that viewing figures for some FIFA World Cup matches topped at least 20m.
Nevertheless, Fall insists that the NBA has carved out a unique space in the sports media landscape that complements rather than competes with football.
“In the long run and even presently, people are watching both. A lot of the top football players are huge NBA fans. The NBA is really where music, fashion and sport intersect. These are all elements that speak to youth and this is why I like our chances of winning our mindshare where more people will tune in. I don’t necessarily see it as competition with football, we will just focus on doing what we are doing best.”
Fall believes that the NBA’s focus on African talent will help to foster a strong connection with fans. Thirteen African-born players were on NBA rosters at the start of 2018-19 season, while 10 players from the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa programme have been drafted into the NBA since 2003.
“When you have strong players on court and coaches that are serving on teams and in front offices, topping it off with a Nigerian running one of the best franchises in the NBA, that certainly contributes to brand awareness.
“For us the most important thing is we see basketball and sports as a key driver for economic growth and Africa is a continent on the rise. It’s all about how we can use the power of our brand and the celebrity of players to inspire the youth to engage in positive social activities.”