International Sports

NBA steps up its global plans to take basketball to new markets

Key Points
  • CNBC series “The Score” explores basketball’s huge growth in popularity across Asia
  • More than 640 million people in China watched NBA programming on TV during the 2017/18 season
  • The NBA’s latest match in London finished Washington Wizards 101-100 New York Knicks

The NBA has been in London this week for a seventh time in eight years, as the organization continues its growth of the game on a global scale.

The Washington Wizards and New York Knicks faced each other in front of a 19,000 sell-out crowd at the O2 Arena, giving fans a chance to see top-level basketball first-hand.

Washington Wizard's Thomas Bryant (second right) shoots only to be Goaltending fouled for the winning points during the NBA London Game 2019 at the O2 Arena, London.
Simon Cooper - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images

Washington edged the game on Thursday night by a single point, with the score finishing 101-100, but the trip was about more than what happened on the court.

Prior to the game Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis told CNBC that although the team was focused on the game "this is a business trip," referencing the many sponsor and PR engagements in the team's busy schedule.

"We're hoping that one day Europe becomes a hotbed of basketball, just as China has become. We think that making those long-term investments are what we have to do as owners to pay back how great the league has been and how fast the league is growing," Leonsis added.

The U.K. and Mexico have been the locations for regular season fixtures since 2011, but the NBA's rapid rise in popularity across China has seen a huge amount of focus shift to growing the game from the Far East into other parts of Asia.

How the NBA is taking over China
How the NBA is taking over China

As revealed in CNBC's new show "The Score," the NBA's Commissioner Adam Silver said "We realize the U.S. is a little less than four or five percent of the global population and we have a whole world out there that loves basketball and loves the NBA."

According to figures produced by the NBA, over 300 million people play basketball in China, with more than double that number watching some part of its programming on television during the 2017/18 season. With 178 million followers across its Chinese social media channels, the NBA also boasts the highest following of any sports league in that particular market.

"Social media is a way we've been able to infiltrate those markets very quickly with young people in particular living on social media," said Silver. "They're following player's individual feeds. Obviously Facebook is enormous in India and Instagram and these other services that feature the NBA to combine social media."

The NBA distributes its games and programming in 215 countries and territories and in fifty languages. More than 30 percent of all its "NBA league pass" subscriptions are in Asia — offering fans access to on-demand content and the live streaming of games.

Boosting this popularity is digital coverage by tech firms, such as China's Tencent and Japan's Rakuten that have played a key role in NBA becoming a mainstay in Asian sports culture.

NBA looking to expand into more international markets
NBA looking to expand into more international markets

In 2015, Tencent and the NBA agreed a five-year digital rights deal said to be worth $500 million, which included free highlights available to more than a billion and works as an entry point for those less familiar with basketball.

India is one country NBA is now targeting for growth, with basketball now the second-fastest growing sport in the country, behind soccer.

Part of the NBA's plan is to include projects which expose young people to basketball at an early age. Junior NBA schemes are currently running across Asia — and there are also NBA academies in China, India and Australia.