The NBA will soon be faced with a choice.
It is currently the golden boy, unmarred by medical furor or an antiquated self condemned to the changing times. The NBA is not the NFL, which faces serious backlash that threatens the roots of tackle football: serious, empirically driven concern over neural issues sustained while playing. The NBA is not the MLB, which has been around long enough and goes for long enough that while it still claims the title of America’s Pastime, it has taken on a more literal sense: America’s Past Time. There’s more than that, of course. Football is America’s Game, and despite concern in recent years in dropping viewership, it still dominates the cultural and personal mindset of American sports fans. The money rolls in. It is not, however, internationalized: NFL Europe and World leagues have fallen quickly.
Baseball is more than American now: the United States has only won 1/4 World Baseball Classics—a competition that is not truly the measure of international baseball acumen, but nonetheless a temporally appropriate measuring stick—and more importantly, the game has spread far and wide and entrenched itself as the pastime of many countries. Hockey is relegated to near-nothingness on ESPN; beloved by Canadian and Scandinavian markets, it stays popular and well-liked, but it is not the behemoth that football, baseball, and now basketball are. None of these sports can compare, internationally, to soccer (futbol), but that matters not to an American-dominated consciousness; only the financial bottom line matters.
The two blueprints, as set out by the MLB and NFL (the NHL and soccer’s many leagues do not make the cut for blueprint possibilities, since their situations, origins, and paths are sufficiently different), are as follows. The MLB has been committed to internationalization, perhaps at the sake of the domestic market. The NFL has continually dominated the domestic market and made a few safe, contained inroads into internationalization.
The objectives for each facet are as follows. By dominating the domestic market, the league dominates the far-and-away largest single source of consistent revenue for which it is tailored while simultaneously building its infrastructure and foundations in a more controlled, known way. By prioritizing internationalization, the league attempts to tap into the larger global market both for the immediate, more-inconsistent resources and for the international development of the sport’s infrastructure and long-term popularity in said greater market. Each strategy sacrifices some of the effectiveness of the other. Leagues do both, but there is priority one way or another.
Which path will the NBA choose? There are already inroads internationally. The NBA’s second game in Africa will take place in a week, and the number of African or African-born players is far greater than in any previous era. The many leagues in Europe and one league in China provide a dynamic, respected second tier, and a home for fringe or marginalized NBA players. There are stars from outside of America now, not just stars born outside the country but raised internally. Coming into this season, the NBA featured a record 113 international players from 41 different territories and countries. Twenty five percent of the players in the entire NBA were born elsewhere. Which in turn means that 75% of NBA players are American. For comparison’s sake, the MLB is also at an all-time high of non-American players, at 29.8% of major leaguers. BleacherReport found that in 2013, 97.12% of all NFL players were born in the United States.
The MLB and NFL have far more players, simply due to the nature of their sports. The nature of a sport is crucial to understanding its demographics and how it can manage those demographics. Football is very expensive to play, from equipment to land required to human capital. Football games that do not have those are fun, yes, but it’s impossible to make the leap to professional football without all of those factors. The United States is the sole country with the infrastructure to support football, and thus its path is clear: America’s Game. Any other country that wants to give it a shot—say, Great Britain—or host some games—say, the Jaguars-Titans (every year, it seems)—well, that’s fine, but as a prominent public figure put it, America first. Baseball is not so demanding. A bat, a ball, maybe some gloves, a field of sorts to play on, and there it is, arguably the national sport of many Caribbean and Latin American countries. They’re darn good at it, too. Baseball demographics are fascinating, but alas that is not the main thrust of my piece, so I will merely direct you to this wonderful article on the matter. Basketball needs a ball and a hoop, sometimes not even a hoop—didn’t Naismith start out with milk crates? The NBA has been consistently at the front of gender and race equality in sports—hardly complete equality in any sense of the word, but at the forefront of the male sports world nonetheless.
It is also important to note the temporal qualities of player ascension in each sport. To become a star NFL player, the conventional route is to excel in high school, excel in college (at the cost of sacrificing wholly or partially post-secondary education), and then enter into the league where, depending on your draft position, the player is in line for fame and money immediately. To become a star MLB player, the route is shaken by the intricate minor-league system and the fact that the high school-to-professional jump is permitted and not uncommon. On the surface, this seems to favour the baseball side, but it does not. The nature of each sport means that while the football progression is longer, at minimum, it is far shorter and easier qualitatively since the game itself is far more similar between the different levels. In baseball, on the other hand, it is far trickier to ascend the ladder, since the size of the system exacerbates the talent gap. It is far easier to jump into an NFL game from a college bowl game than it is to jump into the batter’s box against an MLB ace from short-season single A or even college. The NBA used to have by far the shortest route, as high-school phenoms turned NBA stars quickly with some consistency (LeBron, Dwight—less so Kwame). The NBA jump is quicker, which, along the lines of soccer, is more appealing, especially since the journey can be started with purpose in places where the NFL journey cannot.
The bottom line, as mentioned earlier, is the bottom line. The NFL has seen tremendous growth in recent years, nearly doubling its revenue in 15 years to the point where it is the most lucrative sporting league in the world (projected to make ~$14 billion in 2017), and all in 16 games+ per season. The MLB is next, at a little under $10 billion, and the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan (the world’s second-largest baseball association) takes in around $1.1 billion per annum. The NBA is third at a little under $6 billion, also nearly doubling in the last 15 years. European basketball, what’s more, has increased its revenue 360% in 15 years, though of course on a much smaller scale in each domestic league.
Will the NBA have to box out the European leagues to make serious investment into Europe worth it? Will China, which has burst onto the scene so quickly in signing soccer stars to huge contracts, make its own international play, or focus on its domestic growth—all of which would be a very, very long-term challenge to the NBA, but China would be by far the largest market in the world. Would prioritizing domestic growth put the NBA into too much conflict with the powerful NFL, or would their psychological separation—for good and for bad—keep the two from going head-to-head? Will the NBA’s partnership with Take-Two Interactive, its serious entrance into eSports, give it an unheralded foothold that could potentially reach billions of foreign fans/customers without astronomical investment from the league?
The NBA is enjoying some of the best years in its history, popularity- and finance-wise. But there is untapped potential to be found. The NBA will be faced with many choices; in fact, this game has barely even tipped off.