What: Players with Latin American ties are an increasing segment of the international growth of the NBA.
Why it matters: With tens of millions of fans in the region, these and other player connections to their nations of origin will make marketing there even more desirable for brands.
The NBA (@NBA) has become more of a global game than ever before, and the numbers of players entering this past weekend’s start of action from around the world bear that out.
All 16 teams competing in the playoffs will feature at least one international player. The Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) and Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) have an NBA-high seven international players each. The Boston Celtics (@celtics), Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) and San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) each have six. The Spurs’ 2014 NBA Championship team featured a record nine international players during the playoffs.
The most represented countries among the 62 international players on playoff rosters are France and Australia (seven players each), followed by Canada (four players), Spain (four players), Turkey, Croatia, Cameroon and Brazil (three players each). Thirty-six of the record 64 European players who were on opening-night rosters for the 2017-18 season are on playoff rosters.
The fact that Latino players are local aspirational heroes has also changed everything.
However what about a Latino influence? As the popularity of the NBA continues to take gold even more throughout Latin America, is that being reflected not just in talent but in activation?
In addition to the four players from Spain, another 10 Latinos dot NBA Playoff rosters, one of the largest and most impactful groups in recent history.
The list includes: Lucas Nogueira (Raptors), Al Horford (Celtics), John Holland (Cavaliers), Nene Hilario, Trevor Ariza (Houston Rockets), Maurice Harkles, Napier Shabazz (Blazers), Raulzinho Neto (Jazz), Manu Ginobili (Spurs) and Karl Anthony Towns (Timberwolves). Of the group Holland, Ariza, Harkless, Shabazz and Towns, were born in the United States, and have Dominican nationality, which will be interesting as the qualifying for the 2020 Olympics takes place in the next few years.
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The playoff impact on rising Latinos should not be lost, as the NBA stakes claim to 50 million casual fans and 17 million avid fans in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Columbia alone, and their presence in Mexico, where a training center is opening and regular season games are now a yearly occurrence continues to amplify.
“Basketball is already the second-most watched sport in Mexico,” said Arnon de Mello, vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America recently. “It’s growing tremendously. And there are more basketball courts in this country than any other sport.”
For other countries, the rise in interest, and in brands looking to activate against that interest either in consumer activation or in the media, has also been amplified.
“When we first started going to Mexico or the Caribbean, it was a bit of a learning curve, now the amount of content young people can receive, and the ways they consume the NBA mean there is no learning at all,” said Terry Lyons, a veteran sports marketer who helped create the NBA’s global programs while at the league for over 25 years. “The star value of American players is obviously there, but the fact that Latino players are local aspirational heroes has also changed everything.”
Unlike a sport like baseball, which dominates some cultures in Latin America but not all, basketball, be it the rising 3 on 3 version that FIFA is pushing forward or traditional 5×5, has made a wider leap into the fabric of Latin America, and the ways to consume the game, especially around NBA Playoff time, have never been greater.
“The NBA has always looked to be global since David Stern arrived, and while most think that the focus is to Europe and Asia, the growth in Latin America for now may even be more impactful,” added Chris Lencheski, a veteran sports marketer now at MP & Silva and teaching at Columbia University. “Soccer will always be king, bit basketball has made some amazing strides both in broadcast and consumer engagement, and the more diverse its stars who speak Spanish, the better off they will be in the next decade.”
As the Playoffs get rolling the chances of a Latino player hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June will be more focused, but even if that does not happen this year, the sound of NBA basketball as a marketing property in Latin America is continuing to rise, and that sound is music to the ears of diverse brands, as well as the elite players who have embraced the culture of basketball, in countries far and wide.
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Cover Images: Manu Ginobili (Wikimedia: Zereshk); Nene (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)