NBA preseason comes to India as league eyes big leap in untapped market

NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum (L) and NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco NBA

The Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers will play two games at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai on October 4 and October 5, ahead of the 2019-20 season. It will be the first time NBA teams will play a pre-season game in India.

"It really is remarkable to see how much basketball and the NBA has grown in India since we first opened our office here in 2011. Today is another historic day," NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said during the announcement.

"These are the first games of this kind from any global sports league to be played in India. We're proud of that," he added.

The NBA believes the numbers back their conviction that the timing is right for the move. "The NBA has never been more popular and accessible for fans in India," said NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco, citing the 120 million television viewers for last season and the access to more than 350 live games, 80 of which are available with hindi commentary.

NBA India's results on the ground, Colaco says, also justify this move. The Reliance Foundation Junior NBA program, which began in 2013 with 150,000 kids, has now reached over 10 million children and trained over 10,000 teachers in basketball coaching, according to Colaco. "We launched our first global NBA basketball school in Mumbai in April 2017 and we now have 27 active basketball schools in nine cities across India," he said.

And then there's the NBA Elite Academy, which Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant visited in July last year to donate two courts and host a coaching session. Sanjana Ramesh, who participated in the academy's women's program, recently became the second Indian-born female player to receive an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. Princepal Singh, a standout player at the academy, recently transitioned to the global academy in Australia, which serves as a hub for the top male and female prospects outside the United States. Princepal was recently selected to play for the Indian men's national team. India may not have a professional basketball league yet, but cases such as these two are further evidence, says Colaco, of 'great results in grassroots development.'

With the presence of the academy in Delhi, where the Indian national squad also practices, one might wonder if New Delhi may have been a slightly better choice of venue, but Tatum believes Mumbai was the 'natural place to start'. "The NBA's office is in Mumbai, so we have dedicated resources here. It's also the financial, entertainment and media capital of India, so we thought it would be the right place to do it. We also know that Mumbai has a long history of hosting successful sporting events," Tatum said, adding that the NBA will look to play games in other cities throughout India in the future.

For Vivek Ranadive, a Mumbai native who became the first Indian-born majority owner of an NBA team in 2013, the preseason games are a dream come true. "The Sacramento Kings are proud to be playing in the first NBA games ever held in India. As an Indian-American, it is an honour to help bring this historic moment to the country where I was raised. The sport is experiencing tremendous growth in India and we are excited about continuing to expand the NBA's reach to fans across the globe," Ranadive said in a statement. "Obviously, Vivek made us promise that he would be the first team to come and play here in India," said Tatum.

Ranadive, who joined Adam Silver on his first trip to India as NBA Commissioner in December 2014, has attempted to infuse Indian elements into the NBA. The Kings hosted their first annual Bollywood night in March 2014, and have hosted one every season since. The Kings, for whom Sim Bhullar, the first player of Indian descent to play in the league, made his NBA debut, became the first team to livestream a regular-season game on Facebook, exclusively to India, and are the first NBA team to launch a hindi website.

Since 2013, the NBA has unified all games featuring its teams played outside the United States and Canada under the 'NBA Global Games' banner. The newly renamed event witnessed the first NBA preseason game held in Southeast Asia, with the Indiana Pacers and the Houston Rockets facing each other in the Philippines. In addition, a preseason game between the Washington Wizards and the Chicago Bulls in Brazil marked the first NBA preseason match in South America.

But perhaps the largest impact these games have had is in China. In 2004, the NBA held a pair of preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing, as part of the NBA China Games. The two games between the Sacramento Kings and the Houston Rockets was a homecoming of sorts for Yao Ming, who as the top overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft and a perennial all-star, helped popularise the NBA in China. The China Games eventually became a regular in the NBA's preseason schedule. "We are the No. 1 sport in China right now. What people don't realise is we've been in China, broadcasting games there for 30+ years. We take a long-term view when it comes to the global growth of our game," Tatum said.

Tatum believes in a similar long-term view for the game's growth in India. We've been here seven years, we're gonna be here for 70 more years."