The NBA Paris game is a glimpse into where the league is developing its next generation of fans.
In the Bercy neighborhood of the 12th arrondissement in Paris sits the AccorHotels Arena. A 20,000 seat capacity venue that houses ATP tennis championships, concerts, gymnastics and Euroleague basketball.
On a cold 1°C (34°F) Friday night (January 24), fans were lined up four hours before tipoff for the first-ever NBA regular season game played in France.
La Ville Lumière (The City of Light) played host to the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets as part of the NBA’s continued edict to grow the game globally.
The Bucks won the game 116-103. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 16 rebounds in the win for Milwaukee. A standard night for the reigning MVP. Malik Monk had 31 points in the loss for Charlotte.
While the sellout crowd “oohed” and “aahed” at what they were witnessing on the court, Commissioner Adam Silver and his brain trust witnessed another step in what they believe will ultimately be a big win for the business of the NBA.
The NBA has been playing regular season games in Europe since 2011, so far all in-season games have taken place in London. But don’t expect this year’s France edition to be an outlier. Silver, in his press conference before the game, said the NBA will host a regular season game in Paris next year as well.
Europe, and France in particular, is seen as a growth market for the league. Several French players have had long, successful NBA careers. Retired superstar Tony Parker, a native of France, was honored before the game along with Ronny Turiaf. Current players Nicolas Batum (Hornets), Evan Fournier (Magic) and Rudy Gobert (Jazz) all hail from France, so it makes sense for the league to invest resources here.
“France is one of the best basketball markets in the world. I think they are disproportionately represented based on their population in the NBA,” said Silver. “We have 10 or 11 players, depending how you count our players in our G League right now, who play in the NBA, and as you all know, we have some of our very best players who are from France.”
The French love basketball. In an informal poll of fans lined up outside the arena and French media in attendance, basketball is undoubtedly the country’s second most popular sport behind soccer.
Basketball’s increased popularity overseas can be traced back to the 1992 United States “Dream Team.” Likely the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, Michael Jordan and company went on a barnstorming tour during that summer in Barcelona, and their electric play inspired a whole generation of coaches and players overseas.
Speaking of Jordan, the Hornets’ chairman was one of the other main attractions Friday night. Whenever he was shown sitting in his suite in the arena on the jumbotron, the crowd erupted. The greatest of all time’s connection to Paris isn’t just limited to basketball. His Jordan Brand company has a sponsorship deal with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the number-one club soccer team in France. Jordan Brand outfits their entire player kit and additional paraphernalia. PSG stars Neymar and Mbappé were sitting courtside at the game.
“Actually, they came to do a partnership, and Neymar was a big Jordan fan, so the transition was much easier,” said Jordan before the game. “Plus in terms of the market, Paris is all about fashion, and we see Jordan Brand as a leisure wear lifestyle brand. So the relationship was very easy.”
Between playing regular season games in Europe, the league’s partnership with Asia and India, and the new NBA Africa league, this is a global brand.
More and more superstar players (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Joel Embiid) are hailing from overseas, and that doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Investment in expanding growth markets makes sense, and the league has tent poles on all the aforementioned continents.
“We're going to continue to invest in basketball in Europe, work with the local federations and clubs, and continue to bring teams over,” said Silver. “The only real limitation is the way the current schedule is structured, and even as Marc and Michael know, one of the projects the league continues to focus on is what should a regular season look like in five years and 10 years from now? Maybe ultimately we'll be building in more windows to allow for more travel during the regular season.”
As globalization continues and the power of technology reduces barriers, the connection between the NBA and the world will only grow. In an era where the competition for mindshare is at an all-time high, and the saturation of the U.S. market, the league has to be forward thinking in grooming its next generation of fans.
Earlier this season, the league announced it is considering the implementation of a midseason tournament as a way to increase interest. While that has its issues and was met with mixed feelings by the media, players, and fans. It’s clear to see what the league might be looking to do down the line, with more games played overseas.
First and foremost it is to grow the game, and grow the business around the game. That can only happen in expanding markets.
Following the game, Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer was asked if he could envision a world where the NBA playing more overseas games during the regular season was more than just a one off.
“You know it’s like, that answer is above my paygrade,” joked Budenholzer. “I think all the coaches and players, we put our faith in the NBA offices and Adam Silver and what he’s done to grow our sport and expand it and bring it to France this year for this game. Managing our schedule before and after the game, the travel here, the NBA does everything they can to make sure your team is well taken care of. And hopefully put on a great game, and a great opportunity for fans all over the world, to keep enjoying our sport. I’m sure the league will continue to do it. But that’s Adam’s territory.”
If Adam Silver has it his way, the NBA will be in territories all across the globe.