18 African Business July 2019
Cover story: Broadcast media
With Africa’s youth demographic providing a huge potential source of both fans and players for professional basketball, the US’s National Basketball Association (NBA) has ambitious plans for expansion across the continent, as David Thomas reports
NBA launches multi-million dollar push into Africa
With less than a second remaining in the final game of the precariously balanced NBA play-offs, the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard stormed down the touchline and unleashed an arcing shot towards the hoop. As the game-ending buzzer sounded, the ball bounced four times on the rim before rolling in, sparking joyous pandemonium among the home supporters and a 4-3 series win for the Raptors. For Joel Embiid, the 2.13-metre-tall Cameroonian centre for the defeated Philadelphia 76ers, the 92-90 defeat was hard to take.
The Yaoundé-born star wept as he pondered how his bid to qualify for the NBA Conference finals had been thwarted by millimetres. But for the NBA’s executives – including the Raptors’ Nigerian president Masai Ujiri – Leonard’s “movie moment” was a perfect snapshot of heart-stopping drama that will help to sell basketball far beyond its US stronghold.
As the NBA renews its multi-million dollar push into the African sports market – launching a new league on the continent, hosting US teams in flagship South African fixtures and setting up training academies and youth programmes – local stars such as Embiid offer an unparalleled opportunity to win over new fans and boost the commercial potential of the brand.
“Some of the best players in the NBA have come from Africa. They’ve all had an influence and made their mark, contributed to the franchise and won championships,” says Amadou Gallo Fall, vice-president and managing director of NBA Africa and newly announced president of the Basketball Africa League.
“There is tremendous opportunity for basketball development on the continent. Not just from a talent
Joel Embiid (pictured in action for the Philadelphia 76ers, opposite), one of the African players making their mark in the NBA.
development standpoint but also to grow the NBA business. There’s a potential to grow the fan base because there’s over 1bn people, a vast majority being made up of the youth demographic. We are a youth brand – this is an exciting place for us to be.”
At the heart of the plans to win over the continent is the Basketball Africa League, which the NBA is launching in conjunction with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in January 2020.
Twelve professional teams from across the continent will vie for supremacy. Six teams will come from Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco – countries with a strong basketball heritage and robust talent pools, infrastructure and fan interest.
The other six will qualify via a FIBA-run tournament organised between September and October. Fall, a former scout and director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks, says that the new league will build on the substantial efforts that the NBA has put into grassroots development in Africa over the last decade.
“When we opened the [Johannesburg] office in 2010 the main goal was to make sure we made the game accessible. We focused on the grassroots to offer young people a chance to participate in the game. We launched our junior NBA leagues across the continent and we also launched an NBA Academy Africa in Senegal two years ago to create more predictable pathways that you see in other parts of the world. The Basketball Africa League is really the next logical step in terms of milestones.”
Commercial slam dunks The new league aims to capitalise on a growing appetite for sports content as Africa’s emerging consumers increase their leisure spend and gain access to TVs and smartphones. The sports industry in the Middle East and Africa is expected to grow 6.4% in the three to five years from 2018, according to industry participants polled by PwC, an improvement on the steady 5.8% growth recorded in the previous cycle.
While youth participation is vital and bringing star players closer to the public is a driving factor, Fall says that commercial considerations are also at the forefront of the African expansion. The NBA is hoping to augment its runaway commercial success in the United States – the organisation pulled in $8bn in revenues last season, according to Forbes – by attracting international brands and emerging African companies to partner the new competition.
“Companies are looking for ways to showcase products and face consumers. Our players are global icons who speak to the youth, which is the segment most products, companies and industries want to speak to. We already have a lot of interest from marquee companies and brands from around the world – there are food and drinks companies, but also telcos, apparel companies, energy companies. Its really cross-sector because this is going to be an exciting property.”
Corporate sponsors, mostly US-based, spent an estimated $1.12bn on the NBA this season according to IEG/ESP, a division of ad agency WPP. The NBA is preparing to relax rules to allow franchises to inde-