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Volume 21 No. 1
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In India, Stern sees opportunity — and cricket

NBA Commissioner David Stern recently returned from his first trip to India. The twofold mission of the trip: Help grow the sport of basketball in that country and help develop the NBA’s brand there as well.

NBA Commissioner David Stern reached out to Indian children at a clinic.
Stern’s public agenda included an April 8 NBA Cares event in Mumbai held in conjunction with television partner Multi Screen Media. Also on April 8 he met with the six full-time employees working out of the NBA’s Mumbai office. The following day, Stern took in an IPL cricket match, appearing on a world television broadcast from the match. On April 10, he spent much of the day doing one-on-one interviews with top Indian media outlets.

Throughout the trip, he met with current and prospective business partners. He also visited such historic sites as the Gateway of India landmark.

Stern shares here his take-aways from the April 7-11 trip — about the country and about what he sees as the NBA’s opportunities there.

This was your first trip to India. What were your impressions?

STERN: The people there are unfailingly interesting and proud of their heritage. They were very pleased that somebody from an American sports league was visiting them and interested in the development of our sport in their country. They are in the third-largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. Their growth has slowed down a bit — it is only at 5 percent — [but that] is a number that the U.S. and other countries would like to emulate. Their private sector is focusing on becoming an important part of the world economy.

Stern visited landmarks like the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
Why did you go now, and what was your goal?

STERN: We have a six-person office in India that we formally opened in 2011. It now works to support three NBA games a week that we broadcast on television in India. It works to support clinics and it works to support [league partner] Adidas, which has a couple of hundred stores there. And it works on bringing current and former [NBA players] to India.

I was there for a clinic event with an outfit called Magic Bus, which is a non-governmental group that uses sports to teach life values to kids. I also spent time with our Sony Six [television partner] people and other potential partners both for the website and sponsorship relationships. And I got the opportunity to go to an IPL game.

The other thing we did was meet with private-sector representatives who are very anxious to see India’s young population engaged in activities that contribute to exercise, fitness, better health and teamwork. There is a great amount of interest in basketball as one of many things that can be helpful. We have restored eight courts and are engaged in 500 Indian schools, but being frank as I can be, a drop in the bucket overstates it. The size and opportunity are so large, and we have to figure out a way to approach it in a systematic way. It has the capacity to be a very important NBA market.

What was your message to the staff at the league office?

STERN: I told them what I told them when I hired them — that is, that the NBA is committed to international growth and that our game travels so well. It distinguishes us from many other sports. … What I told them was that some number of years ago, we had nobody working on international, and now we have several hundred people working on international, and it can only go in one direction because revenues will continue to increase. We would not staff an office there unless we were committed.

Talk about your experience at the NBA Cares event. Were the kids you visited with at that event well-versed with the NBA? Did they know who you were?

STERN: Absolutely. The kids on the court were wearing all kinds of NBA counterfeit [merchandise]. They were crowding in and knew exactly who they were pushing around — and it was great fun. The people were well aware that the head of the NBA was there.

How was your IPL experience? Had you seen a cricket event before?

It was great; 50,000 people in a vibrant stadium to cheer on the Mumbai Indians against the Delhi Daredevils. It was my first cricket match and it was a blast. The sport has been reformulated by the IPL and it is now a match that goes for three hours instead of five days. It gets record television ratings, and there were other activities that I recognized, with shooting smoke and fog, cheerleaders, loud music, and large video boards. It is a totally engaged fan base with record numbers watching on television. The good news from our perspective is that our games are on the same networks as the IPL.

Stern, with CEO Matthew Spacie (left) of the nonprofit Magic Bus and Manjit Singh, CEO of Sony-owned Multi Screen Media, launched an NBA Cares program in India on April 8.
Talk about India within the global economy. Is there capital and deal flow there?

STERN: There is capital and deal flow. They have a robust movie industry in Bollywood. The Times of India is the largest circulation newspaper in the world. But the retail environment is challenging, from what I can read. There are 200 Adidas stores, whereas in China there are 6,000. We see that as an opportunity. E-commerce is very slowly developing. Television is beginning to hit its stride, with 140 million households out of a population of 1.2 billion. The Internet is growing in adoption but there isn’t bandwidth to keep up with the interest, and huge investments are being made to increase capacity. Cell phone adoption is accelerating, and now they need the 4G capacity to go with the acceleration. It is not unfamiliar to us based on our experiences in China, Africa, even in Europe and Southeast Asia.

What about the overall technology and the state of the work force there?

STERN: Bangalore is a huge center of technology. There is an increasing investment in the technology sector. There is a strong sense that it is an economy that they very much want to put on a global stage. Car sales there did not keep pace from previous years, and there is some concern about that, but from my experience, that is not exactly a horrible thing given the traffic. There are aspects that are first-world and second-world, depending on the partial stages of development. There is a strong sense that as an economy, India very much wants to take its place on a global stage. There are some complaints from citizens about gridlock in their government, but all I can tell them is that I feel their pain.

What’s your take on the IMG Reliance partnership in India [with an effort to develop basketball at all levels in the country], and how does it impact the NBA’s effort in the country?

STERN: I met with representatives from the relationship to talk about ways to grow the sport. My focus is, how do we grow the sport? It is not slapping together a league. We know firsthand how difficult it is to have a successful league on a global basis.

What about facility development?

STERN: It is absolutely undeveloped. There is no arena infrastructure. There is a cricket infrastructure with large stadiums, and there will be some for soccer — but for us, there are small gymnasiums. The private sector came to us and wanted to talk about arena development. Our preference is to talk about game development at the youth level.

Do you see NBA teams ever playing a preseason game there?

STERN: We have had some suggestions that given the increased size of our NBA Development League that maybe there are squads we could send that would showcase how exciting our game is. But right now, we have no such plans.

How will the NBA continue its grassroots basketball development efforts there?

STERN: It needs to be scaled and it needs to be scaled in a hurry because the opportunity is so large. This is an area where I will spend time when I step down as commissioner [in February] because the growth of the NBA on a global basis is something I am committed to now and will always be committed.