•Basketball is the second-most popular sport, behind soccer, in several European countries. Moreover, the NBA's supremacy is not only recognized but also celebrated in Europe, where there's no real college game to compete with the pro game. NBA stars are lionized in Italy, Spain and France, where glossy magazines with names like Maxi-Basket (published in Le Mans), Nuevo Basket (Barcelona) and Super Basket (Milan) keep almost breathless tabs on every aspect of the NBA. Any former NBA player, star or scrub, is invariably among his team's most popular players. "Fans here know as much about the NBA as they do about basketball in their own country," says Mike D'Antoni, a former NBA guard who's entering his 12th season with Philips Milan (formerly Tracer Milan) in the 32-team Italian League.
Some day, ironically, the European Division of the NBA could face its stiffest competition from other American sports, especially football. The NFL will realize about $3.5 million in revenues this year from television and merchandise sales in Europe, and one NFL official called Europe "a major growth area, already yielding five times what it was three years ago." Still, football, baseball, hockey, whatever, do not begin to approach basketball as a "live" sport in Europe.
"Clearly there's a high awareness of the NFL in Europe," says Creelman. "The difference is that Europeans see the NFL as more of a spectacle, entertainment, not necessarily something they can participate in. The NBA is seen as spectacle and participation."
The European Division would immediately cash in on that dual perception. It would not function as a junior varsity to the NBA; its rosters would be manned by U.S.-caliber pros, not homegrown players selected to appease the ticket-buying constituency. Oh, Stankovic believes that European teams will need European players to succeed, and he's not alone in that opinion, but that notion underestimates the European fan's sophistication, not to mention his prejudice in favor of American players. And, anyway, by the time the European Division is in place, today's strong 10-year-old kid in Spain may have blossomed into a center along the lines of that celebrated Nigerian expatriate, Akeem Olajuwon.
Franchise ownership in the European Division would not necessarily be a problem, though most European professional teams bear corporate names that simply would not wash in the NBA. Peel away the corporate skin of most European teams and you'll find in almost every case a millionaire businessman at the core, just as you do in the NBA. At any rate, NBA observers feel that there will be no shortage of interest in the league among deep-pocketed European businessmen, not to mention Americans or American companies with multinational inclinations.
What are the drawbacks? Obviously, any expansion dilutes the talent pool, and the movement into Europe would create an entire division of weak-sister expansion teams. New arenas would have to be built in several of the cities to meet minimum NBA capacities. And, even though the NBA has already seduced the European fan, it's impossible to assess the degree of resentment that the executives, coaches and players of the established European teams would feel toward NBA intrusion, and what impact that resentment would have. There will be cries of Yankee colonialism, creeping imperialism, call it what you will.
But, then, there are always such cries, and over matters more important than basketball, no? And there are always complaints about diluted talent pools and subpar arenas whenever a pro league expands. European expansion will make these problems more acute but not insurmountable.
How strange would the thought of franchises in Madrid and Milan seem to the NBA pioneers whose teams played in cities like Fort Wayne, Providence, Rochester, Sheboygan and Waterloo. But there were lots of things they couldn't have imagined then, things like multimillion-dollar contracts, 360-degree dunks and the Laker Girls. They never imagined that the players would get so big, either—or that the world would get so small.