The NBA is making a new play for fans in Africa by splitting with the continent's biggest sports broadcaster and teaming up with a Zimbabwean telecommunications entrepreneur who started his first business with $75.
The NBA announced Thursday that it has a new multiyear deal with Econet Media to show live games and other NBA programs on Econet's pay TV, Internet and mobile platforms in sub-Saharan Africa from the 2016-17 season. The deal makes Econet the NBA's official broadcaster in sub-Saharan Africa and will offer viewers over 500 games a year, the NBA said, including the playoffs and finals. It also includes WNBA games.
It will see the NBA end its relationship with South Africa-based satellite TV broadcaster SuperSport. That contract expires at the end of this season. The NBA didn't disclose financial details or say exactly how long the Econet agreement was for.
"I can tell you this is the largest partnership in the history of the NBA in Africa," NBA vice president and managing director for Africa Amadou Gallo Fall said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
Fall confirmed the new agreement to the AP ahead of the public announcement.
Econet began life as a cellphone network in Zimbabwe, where founder Strive Masiyiwa started his first company with $75. He also fought a long legal battle against the government of President Robert Mugabe to be allowed to compete against Zimbabwe's state-run telecommunications company.
Masiyiwa now has telecom and media businesses across Africa, and in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Masiyiwa's net worth was estimated to be $600 million in 2014, according to Forbes Magazine.
The partnership would likely offer Africans more affordable access to the NBA even though it would still be on Econet's new pay TV service. Distributing more content on mobile devices could also help the NBA's reach on a continent where only a few have satellite or pay TV, but millions have cellphones and other wireless devices.
"In Africa, a mobile device is the first screen for many," Fall said. "We really wanted to tap into the opportunity that space offers."
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Econet was "the ideal partner to extend our reach in sub-Saharan Africa."
With a population of more than 900 million, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the last frontiers for the NBA. Basketball is popular in parts of West Africa, but is generally a minor sport for the rest.
To change that, the NBA has had an office in Johannesburg, South Africa, run by Fall since 2010. Last year, the league brought over Chris Paul, Luol Deng, the Gasol brothers and a list of other NBA stars to play an exhibition game at an arena in downtown Johannesburg, its first game in Africa. It was the first of the big U.S. sports leagues to go to Africa. But to highlight the challenge, the game wasn't sold out even though it was held in a small, 4,000-seat arena.
Still, the exhibition was preceded by talk from Silver, who also made the trip, that the NBA might be ready for a pre-season and ultimately a regular-season game in Africa in the "not-too-distant future."
Without giving a timeframe, Fall said "I can guarantee you that's the plan."
Before that, the NBA needs to spread the word in Africa and try and catch up with soccer, which currently dominates the sports channels. The NBA plans to have platforms to show live games in all 54 countries in Africa within five years, Fall said.
"It's a massive continent," he said. "There's an opportunity for multiple sports to grow and prosper."