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NBA Draft 2011: Fulfilling the league’s global outreach with more international players

NBA Draft 2011, which starts Thursday night, includes several talented international players. With more foreign players, the NBA is reaching an increasing global audience that is proving to be profitable, as well.

By Christopher HartmanContributor / June 23, 2011

Enes Kanter of Turkey speaks to reporters at a media availability session ahead of the 2011 NBA Draft in New York, June 22. NBA Draft 2011 will be held June 23 in Newark, New Jersey.

Mike Segar/Reuters

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According to several mock-NBA draft sites, there are at least six international players who could go in the first 30 picks of the first round. And looking at a team like the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, who have five international players in their fifteen-man roster, you can win with them as well.

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Add to that the recent sports media hysteria over the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pursuit and acquisition of 20 year-old Spanish phenomenon Ricky Rubio, and you’d think you were talking about a college All-American first-round draft pick.

As of the 2010-11 season, the NBA had 84 international players, an all-time high. And one team who has taken the lead in pursuing internationalism in the NBA is the New Jersey Nets. They have a Russian billionaire owner, and several international players and sponsors. This past season the Nets played an NBA game with one of the league’s own international teams (Canada’s Toronto Raptors) in London.

Last year, they made a preseason trip to China, and, prior to that, held a basketball clinic in Russia. They are enthusiastically embracing a longer, broader view of the appeal of the NBA beyond its traditional borders and fan base.

The Nets already have a Russian-language website and a TV broadcast deal to televise games in Russia. The team, from the top down, has emphasized the need to have attract international fans. “We’re really trying to differentiate ourselves from any of the other NBA teams, or even the other teams in U.S. sports, in that we want to offer our product, which is NBA-quality basketball, to fans all over the world,” says Christophe Chalier, the board Chairman for the Nets.

And the NBA has been responsive to this outreach effort. “Building the sport of basketball and the NBA internationally is a priority for the league as a whole, but we’re thrilled the Nets are so supportive of this,” according to NBA Europe senior vice president Sophie Goldschmidt.

European fans have responded, making L.A. Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant’s jersey the No. 1 seller on the continent for several years running. It should be noted that Bryant spent a number of years growing up in Italy while his father Joe played professional basketball there. Because of this, Kobe speaks fluent Italian.

The effort to entice these international fans appears to be bearing fruit. According to basketball writer Sarah C. James, as of 2011, the league’s international merchandise sales were up 35%, and are projected to rise another 30% this coming year.

Over half of the NBA.com website visitors are from outside the USA. And NBA.com/China consistently reached 7.5 million visitors on its website throughout the 2010 finals. The NBA Finals have become an international goldmine for the league, with broadcasts to 215 countries in 41 different languages.

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