American sports are generally nothing more than a curiosity in Europe. That’s not the case with the NBA. The same league that has darts thrown at it by Americans, especially when U.S. teams are defeated in international play, is big time in Europe.
That’s why the Suns and three other NBA teams are now staging their training camps and playing exhibition games across the continent.
But don’t expect the league’s popularity to translate into NBA franchises across the Atlantic. Romans may be speaking Chinese before that happens.
“After doing a number of studies, we came to the realization that preseason events are the way to go,” said Terry Lyons, the NBA’s chief international spokesman.
Europe simply doesn’t have the state-of-the-art arenas needed to generate NBA-sized revenue, Lyons said. In practical terms, such vital areas as suites, concessions and parking don’t fit the NBA model.
Basketball arenas in Europe are fine, as far as they go, “but if you look at 41 (home) games and raising the necessary revenue, it’s not feasible with any building in Europe,” he said.
Such concerns have hardly stopped the NBA in America. If the league or local club officials deem their facilities to be inferior in raising revenue, they go to government officials with their hands out, asking for new arenas.
But it’s doubtful that the citizens of London, Rome, Paris or Madrid would bow to arguments that their cities wouldn’t be considered “world class” unless they got an NBA franchise.
GROWING THE GAME
Since 1988, the NBA has staged 66 games — 53 exhibitions and 13 regular season games — overseas. The NBA’s chief reason for doing so is to grow the game, Lyons said.
“Promoting the game and getting kids to play sat at the top of our list,” he said.
The most tangible results for this are to increase TV ratings, and — secondarily — to sell merchandise, he said. But putting a team on the continent is an idea whose time hasn’t come.
Of course, skeptics would argue that the NBA already has tried and failed in one international adventure.
The Grizzlies transferred from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001. That the NBA couldn’t make it in a place that generally makes the lists of the world’s greatest cities — and which is located within 30 miles of the U.S. border — was humbling.
NBA officials say Vancouver’s business community simply didn’t provide the necessary support.
Also, the Grizzlies paid out their salaries in American money while generating money in Canadian currency. This also is considered a potential problem in any other international expansion.
Josh Rosenfeld believes he was either the first or second person hired in the NBA’s fledgling international division in 1990. By the time he left in 1996, the NBA had five or six offices around the world.
A key development: the popularity of the original 1992 Dream Team that dominated the Olympics in Barcelona.
Rosenfeld said it was FIBA — the international governing body of basketball — that convinced NBA commissioner David Stern to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics.
Stern was reluctant to agree. He figured such superstars as Michael Jordan wouldn’t want to give up a summer to play for free. But Stern was ever mindful of building relationships around the world, so he relented, Rosenfeld said.
Today, the NBA is so wellregarded in Europe that, “within 10 years, we may have a team or league over there,” said Rosenfeld, now a New Jersey sports writer. “I think it could work.”
For now, that is still a dream. The logistics of travel make it just about impossible for NBA teams to work in Europe, said Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo. “I know what that kind of travel takes out of you,” Colangelo said. “I’ve done it.”
As technology of air travel progresses, perhaps the question can be reconsidered. “If you can get across the ocean in two hours instead of five,” Colangelo said, “that would be different.”