Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports
October 9. 2012 - Growing up the child of travel executives, Heidi Ueberroth had a chance to see the world. In ways that aren’t always obvious, the experiences shaped her career
Given her background and her father’s influence — Peter Ueberroth was the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the1984 Summer Games and Major League Baseball commissioner from 1984 to 1989 — it’s no surprise Heidi Ueberroth is the president of NBA International. She heads the league’s ambitious efforts to make the NBA even more popular worldwide through business and grassroots programs.
“Certainly, our philosophy is that it starts with the game and what happens on the court, and you also have got to be a part of helping drive participation. That’s a fundamental for us,” Ueberroth said.
Because of last season’s lockout, the NBA did not play outside of North America for preseason or regular-season games. But the league is back with a strong international presence in 2012-13, playing preseason games in Istanbul, Berlin, Milan, Mexico City, Barcelona, Beijing and Shanghai — all sellouts according to the NBA – and a regular-season game in London between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons on Jan 17.
The Dallas Mavericks play FC Barcelona in Barcelona today, and the defending champion Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers play twice in China — in Beijing on Thursday and in Shanghai on Sunday. The Mavericks and Boston Celtics were in Europe last week, and the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets played in Mexico City on Sunday.
“These games are really important in our efforts to bring the NBA and the experience closer to the fans,” Ueberroth said.
The global market has long been on NBA Commissioner David Stern’s agenda. He once floated the idea of NBA expansion into Europe.
While the league is not ready for that, pushing deeper into international markets remains a top priority. Of North American team sports, basketball can make the argument it has the biggest global appeal.
To make it work, the NBA uses a two-pronged approach. The product on the floor spurs fans to play the game, which creates a cycle of more playing and watching and ultimately convinces fans to purchase NBA products.
All that helps to boost the NBA’s $5 billion industry.
“A big part of our strategy is making the game more accessible through technology,” Ueberroth said, noting the increase in various mobile devices as another platform to generate revenue.
The NBA’s international TV and digital presence is impressive, and the league is at the forefront of social media usage, especially in China:
- The NBA has 6.1 million followers on Twitter.
- On China’s Sina Weibo and Tencent QQ microblog sites, which are similar to Twitter, the NBA has 52 million followers.
- More than 50% of the NBA’s Facebook followers are foreign.
Last year, the NBA launched a basketball academy in China with the assistance of the Chinese Basketball Association that will develop players and coaches.
India, with its growing middle class, is another market the NBA wants to further develop. In 2010, the NBA made Troy Justice its director of basketball operations in India and he helps oversee youth leagues and tournaments there.
“I’ve always said it’s a question of when not if,” Ueberroth said of a player from India joining the NBA.
Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has been to India, and former NBA player Robert Horry recently spent time in India at a 3-on-3 event.
“There’s a real acceptance (around the world) to partner on the growth of the game,” Ueberroth said.
The NBA has seven preseason games played outside the USA, part of the growth of the international presence in the league.
The NBA has cultivated an international presence for its sport since the late 1980s, tremendously boosted by the success of the original Dream Team in 1992. Including this preseason, the NBA will have played 115 games internationally since 1988. A few markers of that growth:
- In the 1991-92 season, the NBA had 21 international players in the league. Last season there were 78, from 39 countries and territories.
- In 1991-92, NBA games and programming were available in 87 countries in 25 languages. Today, that’s up to 215 countries and territories and 47 languages.
- More than 50% of visitors to NBA.com come from outside North America.
- The NBA has web destinations in Africa, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Spain.
- The NBA is the most followed league via social media in China (52 million).