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How the NBA is succeeding in making India fall in love with basketball

Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings in action at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai. (Credit - NBA India Official Twitter)

India, a predominantly cricket crazy nation with a population of over 1.2 billion has enjoyed yet another exhilarating week of sport. No, it’s not because they managed to beat the visiting South Africans by a mammoth 203 runs, or due to the thrilling performances from the boxers at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in Russia. But, it’s solely attributed to the fact that the National Basketball Association (NBA), held their first-ever basketball game in the South Asian country.

To onlookers, it may seem like a bolt from the blue, but the NBA has been trying to popularise the sport with the Indian fans for a number of years. The biggest challenge they faced was the time difference between the United States and India – which led to a majority of the live games being shown at six and nine am – nowhere close to primetime on television.

Obviously, rescheduling their games to cater to the Asian markets would see a loss in terms of viewership and advertising from Europe, whose players have often taken the journey west to play in the world’s greatest basketball league.

So, the NBA decided to tie up with the Reliance Foundation – a multinational conglomerate company – loosely responsible for turning sport into the money-making industry in India that is today. After having enjoying success promoting the cricket (Indian Premier League) and football (Indian Super League) competitions among many others, Reliance and NBA signed an agreement in 2013 to take basketball to an entirely new level.

Nita Ambani (Reliance Foundation Chairperson), Adam Silver (NBA Commissioner), Myles Turner of Indiana Pacers (Left) and De’Aaron Fox of Sacramento Kings (Right) come together to celebrate the first ever NBA game in India. (Credit – NBA India)

And thus, to celebrate six years of what’s been an extremely fruitful relationship, the two decided to bring the NBA to India. A grand idea, which has been used with varying degrees of success in different sports, finally took shape in Mumbai where the Indiana Pacers beat the Sacramento Kings 132-131 in a thrilling overtime finish at the NSCI Dome on Friday.

Nita Ambani, who played a key role in making this a successful venture, said: “It’s my dream to see India become a truly multi-sport nation. Reliance Foundation is excited to present the first-ever NBA game in India and share our joy of celebration of 6 years of NBA partnership with these wonderful and budding basketballers from our Junior NBA program. Promoting education and sports in children is my mission and I hope to see India on the global sports pinnacle.”

Surely having one pre-season game in India is not enough to start a basketball revolution in the country and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver certainly mirrors that opinion. Working together with the FIBA, the NBA is on the cusp of setting up a basketball league in Africa and could do the same in India as well.

As per ESPN’s Marc J. Spears, Silver stated that there is “serious consideration to the launch of a league.” The tournament will feature 12 teams and will follow a format similar to the one that commences in Africa next year.

In May, NBA curated a four-day event that had 15 artists from all over India, young adults, abled children and community volunteers, come together to paint the Mehboob Studio Wall (3900 sq.ft) in the heart of Bandra West, Mumbai. (Credit – NBA India)

Apart from bringing players to the subcontinent and setting up various academies in all corners of the country, the NBA has also encouraged a number of fan-engagement activities that have brought fans closer to their basketball heroes and for some, made them aware of the top athletes in the NBA.

Such initiatives have seemed to work wonders with fans throughout the country. They’re now willing to spend top dollar for a sport that doesn’t have a tenth of cricket’s popularity. For example, the cheapest tickets to Friday’s game were priced at ₹4,500 (£51.52) whereas you get the best seats in the house for the entire five days of next week’s test match between India and South Africa for a mere ₹5,000 (£57.24).

Starting a league akin to the IPL which runs in the NBA off-season could be an idea that fans get on board with. Given the heavy financial muscle Reliance has provided, it’s not implausible to see the likes of Steph Curry and LeBron James shoot hoops in India one day.

Pranav Shahaney
English Literature Major. Studies MA Sports Journalism at St. Mary's, Twickenham. Words for Sports Gazette and VAVEL. Has three years of experience working in the print industry and has been writing professionally about sport since 2015. Co-hosted football podcasts and supporter club social events. Offered live commentary at cricket games. An avid enthusiast of all sports with a heavy inclination towards the beautiful game of football. Follow him on Twitter @PrSchadenfreude and on Instagram @pranav_11
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