The NBA might be planning expansion in more ways than you think

The NBA may not officially be in ‘expansion mode’, but the growing global popularity of the sport – punctuated by the Toronto Raptors becoming the first team in NBA history to win the title while being located outside of the US – makes you wonder that new teams joining the league may not be that far off, and the prospect of further international expansion with it.

As commissioner Adam Silver has noted, the shorter-term focus is on improving the overall quality of the league for its existing 30 teams, but for the league to continue its exceptional worldwide rise compared to other US sports, expansion may be inevitable, though perhaps not as much along the lines some may assume.

For now, issues like travel logistics, cultural and economic barriers between countries, and a talent pool not quite able to support more than a few more teams at the level most fans are accustomed to seeing have slowed the league’s interest in growing the sport around the globe. But the NBA has been laying the groundwork over the last half-decade and beyond to change these things.

At the forefront of those efforts have been the NBA’s global network of academies – there are currently seven in total, located in Mexico, Australia, India, Senegal and China, the latter of which runs three such academies. Described by the league as a “network of elite basketball training centers around the world, [which] include educational development for top male and female prospects from outside the US and mark the NBA’s signature elite player development initiative”. The scheme’s rapid but quiet expansion signals a shift in footing to how the league has approached international engagement historically.

For many years, international players were something of a sideshow attraction. European players in the league were dieted a novelty, with little to no effort being expended to grow the sport outside of North America, with, until recently, the bulk of foreign players coming from regions exposed to the sport in its early years by the YMCA (Europe), missionaries (Australia, Philippines, China), and a student of the sport’s creator (Dr. James Naismith) who moved to South America after accepting a post teaching at a Brazilian university.

Few teams truly bothered to care about expanding their talent searches, unless it was for the most outstanding international players. Organisations were content to continue reaping the benefits of a free farm-league system (to borrow from baseball terminology) that is the NCAA. There were a few foreign players in the league’s earliest years, but it wasn’t until 1984 that a player who was born and trained overseas played for an NBA team.

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Early pioneers like Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Detlef Schrempf (Germany) soon followed, and the growing global popularity of the NBA after the 1992 Olympics greased the pipeline for players from the former Soviet Union and satellite states, like Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania), Vlade Divac (Serbia), Dražen Petrović and Toni Kukoc (Croatia).

The traditional regions where the sport had first been introduced outside of the US would go on and provide nearly all the league’s international players in the 1990s and 2000s, including Marc and Pau Gasol (Spain), Manu Ginóbili (Argentina), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), and Tony Parker (France). These players, in turn, having success abroad in the NBA drove interest in the sport at home, bolstered by the league’s 40-year practice of holding pre-season games abroad through the Global Games program.

The Global Games began in 1978 with then-defending champion Washington Bullets dropping a game to Israeli Premier League stalwart Maccabi Tel Aviv. The NBA team played three more preseason exhibition games in established strongholds of the sport in China and the Philippines. After that, the concept lay in limbo for a half-decade, until it restarted with the New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics playing teams across Europe and Israel in 1984.

This marked the beginning of the league’s first real efforts to grow the sport abroad, with a half-hearted international competition called the McDonald’s Championship running between 1987 and 1991, where NBA champions could face off with some of the rest of the world’s best non-NBA teams. Seen by some as a means to realize longtime goals of having intercontinental champions that FIBA was not able to organize in that era, the move was probably premature, and ended despite garnering participants from as many as five continents some years.

While the reasons why the contest went from annual to biannual to defunct isn’t entirely clear, the fact that NBA teams won handily every time certainly diminished the appeal stateside. But the rise of glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union helped propel an increasing flow of Eastern European players into the league, and the Global Games used that opportunity to branch out, with contests outside of traditional basketball strongholds, including three games within the USSR’s longtime sphere of influence, including Moscow, Russia, Vilnius, Lithuania, and Tbilisi, Georgia – all of which have since contributed to the league’s growing international ranks.

The trend of holding exhibition games in markets where basketball was a secondary sport continued, with the NBA moving to Spain (1988), the Bahamas (1991), Mexico (1992), Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom (1993), France (1994), Germany (1996), and Dominican Republic (2002). While the league remained steady in such offerings in the coming decade, it wasn’t until 2014 that exhibitions again began to be held in new such locations, beginning with Brazil in that year, and Japan and India in 2019.

The success of the US Dream Team in 1992 helped as well, with many aspiring nations choosing to invest in developing teams to compete against the best players in the world – many former US coaches and players moving overseas once NBA doors began to close certainly helped increase the quality of the sport’s global participants as a result. But, the league itself began to shift its public footing a few years ago, perhaps emboldened by the tangible presence of international players in the league making more meaningful contributions than ever before, or the rise of technology in the league, its development, and ownership.

League commissioner Adam Silver said on the confluence of technology with the growth of the sport:

“I believe we can be the number one sport in the world … When I look at the trajectory of growth, the fact that young people, boys and girls, continue to love this sport, are playing this sport, are engaged in the sport of basketball on social media or with online games, I don’t know what the limit is.”

Drawing on the model of European soccer, the league launched a series of academies to develop talent around the world, starting in India in 2017, but soon opening a dozen offices abroad and academies noted above. In conjunction with an effort to embrace sports gambling in order to fund this next round of expansion, many assumed the league was moving to prevent competing leagues – like Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) – from poaching talent that would have gone to the NCAA ranks.

Changing winds with stateside amateur basketball hinted a variety of new paths into the NBA might be on their way. Rule changes began allowing prep-to-pro paths as a way of circumventing the league’s rule that eligible draftees must be one year removed from high school to qualify, while the most reliable means of entry into the league (the NCAA) struggled with the very concept of amateurism itself.

Coupled with a heavy investment into its own developmental league, the NBA G-League, it appeared the NBA was laying the groundwork to take control out of the hands of third parties for players who could be coming into the league. It also looked to steal away athletes from other sports through establishing pipelines of talents in areas only just starting to engage the sport meaningfully.

That appearance, however, may only be the tip fo the iceberg. The NBA is evidently thinking big – perhaps globally – in its plans, with the league announcing a professional league in Africa. The league, to be known as the Basketball Africa League (not to be confused with the competing African Basketball League run by FIBA), will have a dozen teams in Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, and be executed in partnership with FIBA with a “hands-on” role by former US president and basketball junkie Barack Obama – a most interesting development.

FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis said:

“On FIBA’s behalf, it’s a huge joy to see our partnership with the NBA enter unchartered territory as we work together for the first time to maximize the potential of professional basketball in Africa … This is a natural extension of what we have done through the joint initiative that is Basketball Without Borders (BWB), which helps find, develop and nurture young talented players all around the world, including in Africa. The Basketball Africa League will enable us to build on the solid foundation laid by FIBA Africa and relaunch the continent’s club competition to offer the ultimate platform for the very best clubs and players.”

It could be that the long-term plan is not to develop more players to aid in the expansion of the NBA itself – an issue we will tackle in the next installment on my summer series of the future of the league – but in creating entirely new leagues around the world in strong affiliation with the NBA and FIBA. Perhaps then, the league will look again at bringing back those McDonalds Championships, with a little more balance and greater relevance to a global audience.

Whatever the actual plans are, it’s already quite exciting to think of what even a more limited vision could do to grow the sport worldwide. As a fan who exported himself abroad from its birthplace in southern New England to a developing market here in Mexico City, I have but one request:

… could we call it the Corona World Cup?

Feature photo – Nick Wass / Associated Press / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington