NBA tests waters in Cuba, but not everyone's happy

The National Basketball Association wasted little time reaching out to Cuba. But lingering enmity toward the communist nation may force the NBA—and other sports leagues—to proceed with caution.

The league and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) will hold a four-day youth basketball camp in the Cuban capital of Havana next week. The event will serve not only as a goodwill tour for the sport but also allow the NBA to gain a toehold in Cuba as the island nation and United States resume diplomatic and economic relations, experts said.

Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls wearing a Los Bulls uniform, March 1, 2015, in Chicago.
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But there's been some blowback.

Backlash most notably came from the Miami Heat, an NBA franchise based in a county with more than 800,000 residents who identify as Cuban, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. (Tweet This) The team told the NBA of its "vehement objection" to the camp when it was announced, said Tim Donovan, a Heat spokesman.

He told CNBC that neither the Heat nor any of its personnel will participate in the event.

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The Heat's reaction highlights the difference in Cuban sentiment in Florida versus that of the rest of the U.S. In research released earlier this month, 41 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida supported normalizing relations, compared to 69 percent outside the state.

Still, if major U.S. sports leagues tread carefully, outreach in Cuba can lay the framework for a potentially valuable—and geographically close—international market.

"The proximity is very attractive. These types of camps are ways to dip your toes into the water without making a big statement," said Manish Tripathi, an Emory University marketing professor and co-founder of Emory Sports Marketing Analytics.

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The NBA and FIBA camp can build grass-roots support for the sport in Cuba, Tripathi said. While the Cuban men's team has played in six Olympic Games and some Cuban nationals have made NBA rosters, basketball has room to grow there, he said.

Retired stars Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutombo will headline the group going to Cuba. Aside from teaching the game to Cuban youth, the NBA and FIBA plan to renovate three outdoor courts in Havana.

The NBA declined to comment on how the event will affect its business growth, pointing CNBC to its press release on the camp.

"We've seen the bridges that basketball can build between cultures," NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said in the release. "We look forward to sharing the values of our game with Cuban youth and learning together through the common language of sports."

But that doesn't mean that league doesn't have to be careful.

"There is the potential for it to negatively impact the NBA brand. The whole workshop has to be carefully orchestrated, and the NBA knows this," said Ross Steinman, chairperson and associate professor of psychology at Widener University, who has studied fan psychology.

Could MLB come to Cuba?
Could MLB come to Cuba?

Other American sports leagues will likely keep an eye on the camp, Tripathi said. The island is particularly important to Major League Baseball, which has reportedly talked to the U.S. government about playing exhibitions in Cuba.

Eighteen Cuban players were on MLB rosters as of Opening Day last week, ESPN reported. Notables include outfielders Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the Detroit Tigers, as well as pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins.

MLB has a stronger contingent of Cuban-born supporters in the U.S. than the NBA does, so baseball would need to take even more care not to offend emigrant fans by courting Cuba, Tripathi said. MLB outreach to Cuba could prompt more "cultural outcry" in the U.S. than the NBA has, he noted.

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Tripathi added that as more American businesses invest or conduct business in Cuba, backlash at home will become less of an issue.

For the NBA, building brand strength now potentially sets up new revenue in the future, Tripathi and Steinman said. But making money in Cuba likely sits much further down the road, dependent on policy decisions outside of the league's control.

Still, loosening of the trade embargo between the nations can lead to NBA merchandise sales or, in the longer term, exhibition or preseason games in Cuba, they said. The league has previously held contests in Europe and China.

"As the thaw continues and as maybe Cuba starts to modernize, there's a tremendous opportunity for merchandising and buying packages to watch games," Steinman said.