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Wanted: 1.2 Billion basketball fans
Pete Thamel
May 06, 2013
THE NBA HAS ITS EYES ON THE WORLD'S LARGEST UNTAPPED HOOPS MARKET: INDIA. AT THE HEART OF ITS PLAN IS A 7-FOOT TEENAGER FROM THE PUNJAB NAMED SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA. NEVER HEARD OF HIM? TURN THE PAGE. (NO PRESSURE, KID)
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May 06, 2013

Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans

THE NBA HAS ITS EYES ON THE WORLD'S LARGEST UNTAPPED HOOPS MARKET: INDIA. AT THE HEART OF ITS PLAN IS A 7-FOOT TEENAGER FROM THE PUNJAB NAMED SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA. NEVER HEARD OF HIM? TURN THE PAGE. (NO PRESSURE, KID)

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The IPL sizzled from the moment it was launched in 2008—not surprisingly, since it jazzed up cricket. Matches that had taken a full day or even five days were squeezed into the length of a baseball game. The IPL pumped in music, added cheerleaders and dotted the stands with celebrities. Bollywood's presence and the raucous after-parties put the IPL on the gossip pages and in pop culture. Stern, who knows the sports-entertainment formula well, approvingly enunciates every syllable of "accoutrements" as he discusses the IPL. (A key to the NBA's rise in China, besides Yao, has been a local version of NBA Inside Stuff, hosted by a star of MTV Asia.)

The IPL showed that a franchise-based model can work in Indian professional sports. Within the first three seasons the league's franchise values shot from an average of $90 million to nearly $350 million—amid an economic downturn. Since then the market has cooled, but the IPL still boasts a billion-dollar television deal on Sony SIX. The league's success "builds from young India," says Man Jit Singh, Sony's CEO for multiscreen media. "[Young people] don't have time for [matches that last] five days; they don't have one day."

Can a professional basketball league in India achieve quick success on a smaller scale? Cricket is the country's religion, soccer its passion and men's field hockey its national sport. In 2010 the IMG-Reliance partnership purchased the marketing and broadcast rights to domestic basketball in the country for 30 years from the BFI. (The partnership has a similar 15-year deal for soccer with the All India Football Federation.) The projected basketball league is scheduled to debut within the next two years and promises to be even more important to the sport's future in India than the development of Satnam Singh.

"Just because we have one person in IMG who happens to be big, that's not going to mobilize what really needs to happen," says Sony's Singh, referring to Satnam. "We're going to have to build it from the ground up. It's not an overnight thing."

The NBA and IMG-Reliance will reap the benefits of each other's success, and reports have surfaced of a possible partnership between the two forces. There's also a logical packaging of NBA games on Sony SIX with games from the new Indian league. For now, though, full investment of the NBA in a foreign pro league remains tricky. "They have a multibillion-dollar brand to protect," says Sharma, who worked at the NBA for nine years. "That doesn't lend itself toward risk-taking, and doing business internationally in emerging markets by definition is risk-taking."

When Himamshu Dabir first visited the BFI's offices in New Delhi in January 2012, he went to the bathroom and found a pigeon on the toilet seat. That was a critical indicator for the future of basketball on the subcontinent: Even the simplest tasks can be complicated.

So imagine attempting to establish a system for identifying talented young basketball players in a country of 1.2 billion people, 70% of whom live outside the cities. Dabir, 28, grew up near Syracuse, N.Y., and interned with the NBA Coaches Association while attending the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Nothing there prepared him for trying to create an intricate sports infrastructure in a country in which power outages are common and hundreds of millions of people live on less than $2 a day. This overwhelming job also came with an underwhelming salary: $7,000 per year.

"For us to take the next giant step, we have to plug in the holes of the talent gap," Dabir says. "Players who should be in the system are falling through the cracks. It's going to take a few years."

Basketball has a tortured history in India, which has qualified for the Olympics only once, at the boycott-depleted 1980 Games, where the national squad finished last out of 12 teams. Since then things haven't improved much; India finished 14th out of 16 teams at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships. Dabir, who has since left the BFI, estimates that a realistic target for India to qualify for the Olympics—which requires being one of the top four teams in Asia—is 2020 or '24, regardless of how much Satnam blossoms.

Consider that the combined population of the three nations immediately ahead of India in FIBA's rankings—Paraguay, Cape Verde and the U.S. Virgin Islands—is less than half that of Mumbai (19.7 million). India's athletic underachievement isn't limited to basketball; the country failed to win a single gold medal at the London Olympics and has only nine in its history, eight of them in field hockey.

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