Although its name starts with ‘national’, the NBA (National Basketball Association) has long been much more than just an American professional basketball league. Official initiatives, e.g. Global Games, have been around since as early as 1978 and they are paying dividends in today’s globalised world. The constant high-quality content production and innovation, boosted by the usage of modern technology that defines the league almost as much as the game itself is something that intrigues not only basketball fans, but also a much wider audience. SPORTO discussed the latter, the NBA in Europe and much more with Maik Matischak, Senior Director of Communications at NBA EMEA.
SPORTO: Apart from having a huge fanbase in the US, the NBA clubs are also regular guests in Europe. Friendly games are very common all over the continent, whereas London seems to be the top destination for regular season games. The UK capital has hosted all (7) Europe-based regular season games; this January we saw the Denver Nuggets beat the Indiana Pacers at the sold out O2 Arena. Hosting games surely has a big impact. Why are these games so important?
It’s crucial for us to share the NBA experience all over the world – not only in Europe, but also China, Mexico, Brazil… The league started with these activities very early on and they have proven to be very important. That being said, we still have to consider that 99 percent of fans – whether they come from the US, Europe, China or wherever – will never be able to see a NBA game live. So, for us it is not only important to bring games over, but we also must be able to give all the other fans via other ways this true and full NBA experience. That is why we are constantly working on methods of how to reach as many people as possible in a relevant way, for instance with the help of VR, social media, our OTT platform called ‘League Pass’…
Is a European franchise still a reality?
We’ve talked about this very often, but it’s still something of a long-term vision. It might happen, but in the short or mid-term it’s not on the agenda. Due to scheduling, only one European franchise also wouldn’t make much sense. We would rather bring a whole division over in order to make the scheduling more reasonable. But for this, we would of course need NBA standard arenas here, which we currently probably only have in Berlin, Paris and London. That would need to improve, as well as the basketball economics. These things have to be fully in order, so NBA teams in Europe would be sustainable.
Will we perhaps see any changes regarding the plans on the regular season games in Europe – apart from 2011, there has only been one such game annually?
We are constantly evaluating the market for the regular season games. The three mentioned cities (London, Paris, Berlin) are options, but no decisions have been made so far. From my point of view: the more games we can bring over, the better, but we have to keep in mind that the NBA is a global league and we want to be globally present. That means we would want more games in other parts of the world as well.
"Obviously, you still have to be a trendsetter, but it’s far from just being about dictating the market what it wants; it’s about seeing where the market is going and then creating ways for your business to fall in place accordingly."
When speaking about the key objectives and challenges that you must deliver in Europe, which is the most important one and why?
What and how we communicate is very diverse, but the game is always above all. The work we do at NBA EMEA is not only communication, but also about our business here. That includes working with local broadcasting and marketing partners. Furthermore, we focus on our licensing part of the business. And that is not only about selling merchandise, but also, for instance, about things we do with our gaming partners, such as the NBA 2K, or branded destinations, like the NBA Café in Barcelona, which is the first of its kind in Europe and was opened at the famous La Rambla last year.
How do you see the perception people have about the NBA here in Europe?
The activities we do here show how important this market is for us. It’s a key market – also because of all the players. But when talking about the continent, it’s impossible to say in general, as it’s very diverse. While some countries and regions, for instance Spain, Greece, France or the Balkans, are really in love with the game and follow not only the NBA, but also local teams and national teams very passionately, some markets, like the UK, are different. People there have a lot of love for the ‘Americana’, for the spectacle of the NBA, but are generally less fanatic about basketball as such. If there is something I could say in general for the whole continent, it’s that the NBA in Europe has never been in such a good position, where we wouldn’t have a great potential for growth.
What is your stance about our region, the Southeast Europe, which is home to a lot of contemporary and former NBA players, many of them very, very successful ones?
You guys know basketball inside out. It’s a very important region, but unfortunately we are not very active. We’ll try to increase our activities for sure and we are hoping to find solutions through which we can leverage that great love and tradition for the game that you have.
Because of the time difference, communication through social media channels plays a very important role for the NBA in Europe. How would you comment on the opportunities and the role Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other modern platforms have on the league’s presence in Europe?
Content and social media are very important for us in order to reach out to people and the fans on a regular basis. We are already tackling the time difference with initiatives like the NBA Sundays, where the playing times of the certain games are adapted for the audience in Europe. The time slot is the same, so people can get used to it and we’ve seen some great feedback from the fans. We are also currently working on localizing the content; to differentiate it from the global one and make it even more appealing to the fans in specific regions. We’ve seen tremendous growth in this field in Europe – the numbers have risen over 45 percent last year. On Twitter, for instance, we have 7 different handles that are used for different markets in order to get closer to the local people. We are probably providing fans with more content than any other professional league in the world and we try to be as creative as possible, also when it comes to localization. We try to find things that resonate well with a certain culture. That’s why we had basketball players experience cricket – a very British sport – when they were in the UK.
"For us, it is not only important to bring games over, but we must also be able to give all other fans via other ways the true and full NBA experience. We are probably providing fans with more content than any other professional league in the world and we try to be as creative as possible, also when it comes to localization."
Sport is always about the players on the court. Kenny Lauer, Vice President of Marketing and Digital at the Golden State Warriors, told SPORTO that the emergence of Steph Curry was “simply a dream” for both his club and also for the league itself. What is your view on the global appeal of the ‘Curry phenomenon’, LeBron James’s dominance and other current stars of the NBA?
We have a very unique advantage of having superstars with global resonance and appeal both on and off the court. I think we are well aware that the NBA is much more than just a league. It’s a culture, a lifestyle, music, fashion and more. Our players, like Steph (Curry), LeBron (James), Dwayne (Wade) and others are global icons and celebrities known for much more than just their incredible basketball skills. It’s also not only about the most known US players. This year, we’ve had a record of 113 – which is around a quarter of the league – international players in the NBA. 61, or more than half of those, are from Europe, so for us, working in the local markets, these players are equally important. Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and many others are stunning local ambassadors.
Fewer and fewer fans actually do sport (while esports is getting more and more popular) and the emotional bond between fans and the most globalised sports properties is arguably weaker than between some less marketing-successful clubs and their fans… How do you see the future of sports communication and fan engagement?
We all have to realize that the consumption behaviour is changing. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other similar channels have changed the traditional landscape of following sport completely. But that’s not only happening in sport – consumption has changed overall. And we have to adapt. We have to go where fans consume sport. In the 80s or 90s it was pretty simple, as people were watching broadcasts on their traditional TV sets in the comfort of their sofas. Now, it’s different and we have to go where the fans are and provide them with the content they want and in the form that they need it. That being said, we are also not neglecting our traditional partners, which still play an integral part in our communication mix. But in both cases we have to be creative and this nowadays also includes the esport component. We have to use new ways and new channels to communicate and engage with the younger audience.
Before the NBA, you were also involved with gaming – you worked with EA Sports. If you could point out the most important lesson you learnt there?
Constant adaptation to new trends is key. The business environment we are operating in is always changing and we cannot be left behind. While I was still at EA, they were already adapting to trends which are reality today, as people are more and more into mobile games, which means they don’t spend as much money on blockbuster games like before. We are always inventing new ways to monetize the business. It’s all about adapting your thinking to the way the market operates. Obviously, you still have to be a trendsetter, but it’s far from just being about dictating the market what it wants; it’s about seeing where the market is going and then creating ways for your business to fall in place accordingly.
This text was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 9 (May 2017).