How the NBA Became the World's Most Popular League

A timeline of the NBA's plan for global dominance, explained.

Klay Thompson takes a selfie with fans in Taiyuan, China. / Di Yin/Getty Images

Henry Biasatti played in the first ever game of the Basketball Association of America (which later became the NBA) for the Toronto Huskies in 1946. It was another seventeen years before another international player made an All-Star game, when Thomas Meschery was selected in 1963.

Fast-forward to this decade, where an international player has been named an All-Star 23 times, and four of the last six number one overall draft picks were born outside the U.S. To the NBA’s credit, the U.S. is no longer the only nation with talented basketball prospects.

Of course, this is no accident. When David Stern was named the NBA Commissioner in 1984, he made it a priority to extend the reach of the NBA. Stern’s foresight has paid off—the league’s popularity is at an all-time high and much of it has to do with talent and viewership coming from outside the U.S.

The Association benefited from both circumstance and some key moments, but ultimately, this was all part of the commish’s plan.

Basketball Settlers


Defining Moment #1: Dr. James & YMCA Missionaries

1891: Springfield, Massachusetts, Canadian-born James Naismith (we tend to skip over the fact the creator of basketball wasn’t born in the U.S.) invented basketball while a gym teacher at YMCA International Training School as a way to preoccupy students forced indoors by the snow. Immediately, the YMCA identified basketball’s alignment to its mission, to "strive for spiritual, intellectual and physical well-being of individuals and wholeness of communities” and began to export the game beyond North America via missionaries. It took only two years for the first game to be played on European soil, and four for basketball to make it to China. (Jeff Towson)

Defining Moment #2: Somehow We’re Talking About The World Wars

1910 to 1940s: World Wars, Early on, the two World Wars helped both to spread basketball’s popularity and separate the game’s identity from its Protestant YMCA affiliation when the American Red Cross organized games for off-duty troops on tour throughout the world. The first official games outside of the U.S. took place at the Inter-Allied games in France, where only three teams competed. The games, played on grass, culminated with a 93-8 thrashing by the U.S. on France.

In Conclusion: Basketball Went Overseas!

This was it. Basketball benefited from circumstance and spread the grassroots way.

The Inter-Allied Games in 1919 inspired Italy to found its own professional basketball league, Lega Basket Serie A, a year later. Then, in 1932, the International Federation of Basketball (FIBA) was established, leading to basketball being recognized as an Olympic sport in 1936.

Investing in Mass Media in Other Countries


Defining Moment: David Stern Sends Literal Highlight Tapes to China

1987, China, -- Before Jay-Z sold CDs out of his trunk, before selling mixtapes became cool and then un-cool, commissioner David Stern was slinging highlight tapes overseas. In 1987, Stern traveled to China to strike a deal with Chinese state television provider CCTV that would introduce NBA content into Chinese homes. The agreement stipulated that the NBA would provide CCTV with weekly videotapes of game footage in turn for a percentage of advertising revenue (which was insignificant at the time). Naturally, stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped to increase viewership and advertising revenue, which led to NBA games being broadcasted on province and city-level broadcasters in 1990 in addition to CCTV. 

Milestone #1: The NBA’s Content Philosophy

This strategy served as a preview to the NBA’s attitude towards content 30 years later. David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China, draws the connection between the TV deal in 1987 and the association’s current content philosophy: “It’s been very important for the NBA since we started in the 1980s to make our games accessible to as broad an audience as possible.”

Today, the NBA’s copyright policy remains lax compared to other leagues. The NFL and MLB actively police the internet to remove any highlights while the NBA does not take action. The results are clear, however: The NBA's Instagram almost doubles the number of @MLB and @NFL combined.

The chief marketing officer of the NBA, Pam El, confirmed that the strategy to engage young fans is intentional.

"We know they are all over social media. And we know that if we’re going to market to this younger fan, we need to be where they are," said El. "It’s certainly not by accident that we’re the No. 1 league across all social platforms. That is completely by design.”

Milestone #2: The NBA Secures Strong Chinese and International Viewership

Chinese viewership has come a long way from needing to be convinced to play highlights by the commissioner himself.

The NBA became such a proven platform to reach Chinese consumers that during Yao Ming’s third year, Chinese Beer brand Yanjing Beer bought courtside advertising despite not even selling products in the U.S.

The association’s utilization of social isn’t restricted to just Americans. In 2016, it signed a partnership with Chinese social media platform Weibo that allowed it to post highlights and original programming. The NBA handle on Weibo had 33 million followers last year, compared to 27 million on Twitter.

In China, the NBA is six times more popular than the three largest European soccer leagues combined, and it’s not exactly lacking in other countries either. The international popularity of the league was affirmed at the 2017 Finals, where credentials were given to 265 international journalists representing 35 countries.

Securing International Talent


Defining Moment: The Hawks Tour the USSR

1988, USSR: The Atlanta Hawks became the first NBA team to play against the USSR. As Cold War tensions began to soften, David Stern and Hawks owner and media titan Ted Turner realized the potential of making nice with the USSR. The multi-game tour would allow Stern to spread the reach of the NBA and give Turner’s Hawks first move at budding talent beyond the wall.

Extending a hand paid off almost immediately, leading to NBA careers for three players from the USSR roster, including Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis. Other Eastern European stars at the time, Vlade Divac (1X All-Star), and Drazen Petrovic (Hall of Famer), migrated to the NBA in 1989, a year after the Hawks’ visit.

The trip constructed a bridge from the Soviet Union to the U.S., but it ultimately led to prospects from all over Europe. “That was a game-changer,” NBA’s Kim Bohuny told Sports Illustrated. “A lot of the other countries in Eastern Europe could not take that step until the Soviet Union took that step.” 

Milestone: A Path Paved for Greek Freaks, Unicorns and International Talent

The new wave of foreign players required some planning. Kim Bohuny, who worked on the Hawk’s’ Soviet Tour and was familiar with international players, was hired part-time in 1989 to facilitate the transition of foreign players in the NBA. Bohuny said she helped them with driver's licenses, learning English and the basic mundane adjustments of living in a new city.

What started as a part-time gig for Bohuny has evolved to an SVP title of the fully matured grown-up International Basketball Operations Department at the NBA. The department has been busy as of late. At the start of the 2017 season, there were 108 international players from 42 countries on an NBA roster. Of the last six NBA Drafts, four of the number one overall picks were born outside the U.S.

Last year, foreigners claimed five All-Star spots, the Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. And it appears that the International Basketball Operations Department will continue to be busy. Of the seven players mentioned above, the average age is only 26.

The NBA’s commitment to international growth has positioned the league for long-term success, and it continues to invest in the right places. It is no coincidence that last year, NBA viewership reached a four-year high despite the rise in cord-cutters. New media platforms, untapped nations for basketball talent — the NBA is playing the long game.

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