Is the NBA the world’s most global sports league?

This Saturday (1st August) will see the NBA’s first ever game on African soil with Team World taking on Team Africa at South Africa’s sold out Ellis Park.

The teams are comprised of bonafide NBA stars with eight-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul captaining Team World and taking on two-time All-Star Luol Deng and his Team Africa. A stellar supporting cast, including household names such Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, his All-Star brother Marc and Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka, have also made the trip to Johannesburg marking what will be a truly huge event for the continent.

What is pertinent is that the match will mean that the NBA has now staged games in Asia, Europe, South America, Central America and Africa posing the question, is the NBA now the world’s most global sports league?

Football is the world leader both in terms of participation and support and it would be naïve to ignore the efforts football leagues and teams make to increase their impact overseas. English clubs have been playing abroad long before the conception of the Premier League and nowadays, each summer football clubs from around the world battle it out across the map to win fans in exotic locations. Here in the UK, football fans are well aware of plans for a ‘39th game’ but these are yet to come to fruition and have been subject to strong opposition from fans and media alike.

It would also be ignorant to dismiss the NFL’s attempts to grow American Football globally. Only recently did the league announce a ten year partnership with Tottenham Hotspur to play a minimum of two games a year at their new stadium, demonstrating their commitment to the UK market.

However, in terms of Major American sports leagues, it can be argued that currently the NBA are leagues ahead with offices in 13 overseas markets, games broadcast in 215 countries in 47 languages, and half of’s 26.9 billion annual page views originating from outside the US. Whilst the NFL continues to grow in the UK, the concentrated investment limits any major impact across Europe and the rest of the world. The same can be said for Major League Baseball who whilst dominant in the Asian market boasting three MLB Development Centers in China, are yet to make a significant impact in Europe and Africa.

An obvious advantage for the NBA is that basketball is arguably the world’s second biggest sport in terms of global participation and the NBA is undoubtedly the sport’s most recognised competition. For this reason the NBA can rest assured safe in the knowledge that anyone who plays basketball is likely to become a NBA fan. This notion does not apply to football leagues as there is not one league which stands out as an obvious market leader. Take for example Europe where fans are divided as to whether LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A or The Premier League is the continent’s top competition.

Despite their head start, in my opinion the reason behind the success of the NBA across the globe is threefold:

  1. Experiential – Through events such as Global Games and the NBA Africa Game, the league packages up the ‘NBA Experience’ and brings it to all corners of the world. Not only do teams and players travel, extra components such as cheerleaders, referees, NBA Legends, mascots, flamethrowers and arena announcers are often in tow allowing for a genuine NBA experience. When football teams travel abroad, fans can be provided with a watered down experience whereas the NBA can offer as close to the complete package as possible. I have been fortunate enough to attend NBA games in both Istanbul and London and was wowed by the overall experience.
  2. Centralisation – The NBA is formed on a collective bargaining agreement whereby all 30 franchises are in agreement and work in tandem with the league. This ensures that all franchises subscribe to the same common message and when abroad work to promote the league itself. If you take football clubs as an example, often this is not the case. This summer many of the pre-season tours have showcased clubs who are seeking solely to grow themselves and their own fanbase. Whilst this is completely understandable, the leagues they’re a part of can be pushed to the sidelines.
  3. Legacy – When abroad, the NBA strives to leave a lasting legacy.  Each game is accompanied with a series of clinics working to aid the local community and grow the game of basketball at a grassroots level.  NBA players, coaches and legends alike take part in the activity helping to leave a lasting impression on the region. It goes without saying that this is a common approach across other sports leagues and teams, however this combined with the aforementioned two points helps reinforce the impact of the NBA wherever they visit.


The successful league-wide approach is one that has been adopted by Spain’s LaLiga. Last summer they started the LFP World Challenge which sees LaLiga football teams travel the globe promoting the league and Spain as a whole. Similarly to NBA franchises, the LaLiga teams involved all share the same common message which is to grow both the league and the economy of Spain through the strength of their football.

Now in its second year Spanish teams have travelled far and wide spreading the shared message. These teams are not just bringing football, they’re bringing the rest of Spain with them. Many stops include a ‘Spain Experience’ which promotes Spanish businesses and culture. Spanish teams from lesser known sports such as hockey and taekwondo take part in exhibition matches against a local counterpart in their ‘Champions of Spain’ events. This is a fascinating concept, and one which has been extremely successful thusfar. It’ll be interesting to see if other sports leagues take note.

In summary, undoubtedly the concept of marketing sports, leagues and teams is a global phenomenon, however, at present I believe the NBA are doing it best (but I may be biased).

Further Reading