Sport Tech-savvy NBA returns to London with a plan for global supremacy

16:51  11 january  2018
16:51  11 january  2018 Source:   Press Association

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Jaylen Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers will play their NBA game at London's O2 Arena: Timberwolves Celtics Basketball © AP/PA photowire service Timberwolves Celtics Basketball

Basketball and football are the "only truly global sports" and the NBA is the "best league around", according to the bosses of the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

The teams are in London for Thursday's game at the O2 - the eighth competitive fixture the NBA has staged in the capital over the last 25 years.

The most successful franchise in NBA history, the Celtics currently have the second best record in the league and a potential player-of-the-season in Kyrie Irving.

The 76ers are emerging from a five-year rebuilding project which has seen them field cheap, inexperienced teams in order to load up with young talent through the draft. Commonly known as 'The Process', that plan finally seems to be paying off, with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons starting to repay 76ers' fans for their faith in the team.

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But their growing confidence is matched by the entire league, particularly on the global stage, and that was the overwhelming message from an NBA-themed sports technology conference at BAFTA on Thursday morning.

Scott O'Neill is the chief executive of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the organisation behind the 76ers' 'Process' and which also owns ice hockey's New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia's cutting-edge sports venue the Prudential Centre and a majority stake in Crystal Palace.

Speaking to Press Association Sport, O'Neill said: "There are only two truly global sports, basketball and football, and there is only one global league, the NBA. And that is because it has all the best players - no football league can say that.

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"I also think it is uniquely set up to translate to the huge developments in digital and social media. We have the game, the teams, the technology and the personalities.

"Our team has five international players, so that gives us a huge reach, and all of our guys arrive in the league already knowing how to reach their fans. I didn't know how to do that when I was 21 - and I'm not entirely sure now - but today's players do and that is what the millennial fan wants."

Several speakers at the "Leaders Meet Innovation" conference made similar points about how far ahead the NBA is on using data, both as a performance tool but also for the insights it gives on what fans, wherever they may be, want and expect.

Three out of five visitors to the NBA's digital channels come from outside North America and more than half of the league's social media followers are from overseas. This translates to one third of the league's merchandise sales coming from beyond America, with China the main international market.

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And while professional gridiron remains the biggest beast in the domestic market, there is no doubt the NBA has taken the number two slot and is closing the gap to a National Football League that is still struggling to grow abroad, despite its ongoing efforts to use London as a bridge.

One reason for that, O'Neill believes, is the NBA has "enabled" its stars to control how they engage with fans.

So while the NFL has wrestled with issues such as concussion, freedom of speech and racism - and become embroiled in a row with US president Donald Trump over respect for the American flag - the NBA has let its biggest names speak.

"We have athletes taking real positions on real issues: what could be more powerful than that?" said O'Neill.

That power is illustrated by the league's financial strength. With record ticket sales at home, NBA-related programming was watched by more than one billion viewers worldwide last season, the league claims.

Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said the NBA was now "the best league around" and had a "global footprint", a fact that enabled the team to bring in General Electric as a sponsor, with the multinational even agreeing to change its famous blue-and-white logo for a green-and-white version on the Celtics' shirt.

Pagliuca's background is in finance, and he said the Celtics' return to prominence since his group bought the team in 2003 is a testament to data and technology.

From "building a file" on all of its fans so they know what events they like and clothes they buy, to enabling more than half of their fans to use their phones as tickets and wallets at games, to using social media to give fans "Celtics content 24/7/365 - more clips, more jerseys, more money for players, a virtuous circle".

On where London and the UK fits into this plan, O'Neill said: "I am firm believer that you have to bring the action to the audience.

"London is one of the greatest cities in the world, with huge international significance in business and culture, so we are delighted to be here. OK, it's a massive football market, but we think the more people see our game, the more they will love it."

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