Why you should care
Because basketball is a relative newcomer in India, where cricket is king, but that might change one day.
The Sacramento Kings lined up for their usual pregame layup drill as the club’s dance squad gyrated at courtside. But something looked different. The players’ warmup shirts had the team’s name written in Indian script, while the twirling dancers wore tunics. Minutes later, the Kings’ starting lineup for the game against the Los Angeles Lakers was introduced — in Hindi. And so the evening continued, with bhangra music blaring during a first-half timeout and a men’s troupe strutting in colorful turbans.
While the NBA team’s recent Bollywood Night was a shoutout to the large Indian population of Northern California, its real audience was 13 and a half hours ahead, in cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi. India is the last great untapped market for the NBA, which, over the past two decades, has grown to attract audiences in China as well as in 215 countries and territories, including Mongolia and Venezuela. And there’s one man in particular — Kings owner Vivek Ranadive — who’s determined to bring the great game of basketball to the nation of his birth and is creating an Indian basketball league.
Ranadive, who learned basketball by coaching his daughter’s youth team, came to the U.S. from Mumbai as a teenager and made a fortune in computer software. He visited India with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver two years ago and talks enthusiastically about the Kings playing preseason games near the Taj Mahal. With India expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation in about a decade, it’s a land of great opportunity for execs such as Ranadive. “Basketball really lends itself well to a market like India where there isn’t a lot of space,’’ Ranadive tells OZY. “It’s got a certain swagger to it, so it fits very well with the Bollywood/cricket mindset.’’
There has been only one player of Indian origin to play in a league game in NBA history: 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar, whose career has totaled three minutes.
Other sports have created global appeal before. The NFL, for one, has been playing regular-season games before sold-out crowds in London since 2007. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has opened its season in Japan and Australia, and has had spring training games in China. But Ranadive envisions basketball as the world sport of the 21st century, calling his globalization plan “NBA 3.0’’ and promoting the game as one that can be played “indoors, outdoors, by boys, by girls, by one person, by a few people, in cities and villages, rich countries and poor countries.’’
To make inroads, the NBA is increasing its presence in India, where more than half the population is 25 or younger, by going to the grassroots — it has 1.5 million kids in school-based basketball programs in 14 cities this year. The league is also focusing on mass media. There will be about 300 regular-season NBA games broadcast live to India this season, and about 70 million viewers in India watched an NBA game at some point last season, according to Yannick Colaco, NBA India’s Mumbai-based managing director. The goal this season: 100 million viewers.
But cricket has a religionlike hold on India’s fans, and the nation has a remarkable record of mediocrity in just about every other sport — it ranks dead last in the world in per capita Olympic medals, with 26 all-time medals, or one per each 48 million Indians. (Finland is No. 1, at a medal per each 18,000 citizens.) On NBA opening-day rosters this season, there were 100 international players from 37 countries and territories, including hoopsters from Tunisia and Cape Verde (population 546,000) — but not one from among India’s 1.25 billion people. In fact, there has been only one player of Indian origin to play in a league game in NBA history: 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar, whose career has totaled three minutes for the Kings at the end of last season. Oh, and he’s actually from Canada.
Even so, basketball might have the best odds at breaking into the Indian market. After all, baseball may be a tough sell given its similarities to cricket, while NFL-style football — with all its high-tech shoulder pads and other body armor — would probably be too expensive for the average Indian to play. And a cold-weather sport like ice hockey seems out of the question. Colaco points out that younger Indians are drawn to one-day cricket matches, unlike the traditional five-day events, and that basketball provides the same type of fast-paced excitement. “We really believe that we have a genuine option to make basketball and the NBA a strong No. 2 sport in India,’’ Colaco says.
Can basketball really take off in a country without a player in the world’s top league? The NBA’s popularity exploded in China starting in 2002 because Shanghai’s Yao Ming was an eight-time All-Star with the Houston Rockets. Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University who was commissioner of an Australian basketball league from 2003 to 2007, believes an Indian star in the NBA would greatly help basketball’s rise on the subcontinent. “You have to have heroes,” he says. “In the absence of any greats, your population feels they’re really mediocre at the sport. When you have someone who can do well on a world stage, that helps a lot.’’