If you happen to pass by any outdoor basketball courts you would probably see youngsters playing box cricket or five-a-side football. Rarely does one see tall, young boys or girls flying across the concrete court to reach the basket. This lack of awareness or affection for the sport is often attributed to the unavailability of role models. Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar credits the moment Kapil Dev lifted the 1983 World Cup as the moment that inspired him to hit a straight drive. Prakash Padukone's All England victory in 1980 inspired India to play badminton. “We need Indians to play in NBA,” says Rajesh Sethi, managing director, NBA India and he believes it would give basketball-awareness in the country, a well-needed boost. “That's my dream,” quips the newly-appointed India head.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is a professional basketball league in North America made up of 30 teams playing each other, home and away. The NBA has offices all around the world and as Sethi puts it, outside North America, India is one of the key markets for the league. Sethi, former chief executive officer of Essel Group's sports broadcaster, Ten Sports (now sold to Sony), joined NBA in September this year, taking over the reins from Yannick Colaco who held fort for more than six years.
Sony Pictures Networks India extended their NBA broadcast rights for five years in 2015, reportedly, for Rs 200-250 crore. While Sethi refused to share details about media rights, if sources in sports broadcasting are to be believed then the league is already negotiating with several broadcasters. “They are quoting five times what they got last time and are even willing to sell linear and digital separately,” says the source.
“India is will soon have its Yao Ming moment,” says Sethi while indicating that the league is not where it was five years back. Ming is the 7ft 6in Chinese player who played for NBA franchisee — Houston Rockets — and is often credited for popularising the sport in China (NBA’s biggest market outside South America). “Walking around China with Yao Ming is like walking through New York with The Beatles,” former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson had said in Yao’s jersey retirement video. 500 million people in China said they had watched at least one match in the past year. In India, the NBA All-Star match between Team Giannis and LeBron, played in February 2019, witnessed a cumulative reach of 96.5 thousand (Source: BARC India). Due to the time difference, NBA matches are telecast early in the morning, a not-so-prime time for the Indian audience. “Digital media can change that,” asserts Sethi in an interview with afaqs! where he speaks about other aspects of the business, including the potential of starting a new professional league.
From being a broadcaster and distributor of content to heading the NBA in India, how has the transition been?
It is like moving to the core. Businesses are created around value propositions. Sports content is the backbone of sports broadcasting and then how you monetise the sports content through syndication, distribution, ad sales and all. Here it is talking about the core proposition itself and building the complete business around basketball. NBA as a brand globally is not only basketball but also about lifestyle, passion, celebration and fun.
What does India mean to the NBA headquarters in New York?
A lot! Outside North America, India is one of the key focus markets for the NBA. We see a huge potential in the country and the best thing is basketball as a sport doesn't need great investments in terms of infrastructure. Looking at India as a population of 1.3 billion and a country that is passionate about whatever they do, I think basketball and NBA fit the bill very well. In addition to that, we are seeing a huge interest in merchandise, which I like to call the lifestyle that NBA products offer.
Are there particular categories of merchandise that Indians are warming up to?
We have tie-ups with global brands when it comes to basketball shoes, caps, t-shirts, jackets, bags. We have a multimillion-dollar business in the country already and we are now focussing more on it. We are into, both, brick and mortar and online. We are present as NBA corners in 750 brick-and-mortar stores as well as on Flipkart and Myntra too.
What are the sources of revenue for the NBA in India?
Merchandising is an important source for us. Next is content and media distribution, which is often called media rights, and we have linear television and digital under it. The latter is gaining a lot of prominence in the country. At this stage, with Facebook, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and others, digital is as powerful a business line as linear television is. We have a large d2c business in the country, selling league passes with six-digit plus numbers in that space. In addition to this, we are looking at some unique programming, we have something called NBA Studio and we have done some India specific programming too. For us, all this comes under media and content distribution and all four of them are individual revenue streams.
This is a disappointment and a personal challenge for me. We need Indians playing in the NBA and WNBA.Rajesh Sethi
What are the chances of an Indian featuring in the NBA?
450 players play in the NBA league every year. Out of that more than 25 percent are Non-Americans, this year it is 108, marking the sixth consecutive season that opening-night rosters feature at least 100 international players. These 450 players are spread across over 35 countries yet there is no Indian playing in the league. This is a disappointment and a personal challenge for me. We need Indians playing in the NBA and WNBA. If you look at the economic value it creates, the average earnings is $8million per season, which means you play there for six months and you get back home with close to Rs 60 crore.
How far are we from seeing an Indian playing in the NBA?
We have coaches from all over the world stationed in India since over three years now. We have identified 24 talents who stay 24/7 with us. We are grooming them, not only their game but also their personality. We have English teachers teaching them the language so that once they go to NBA they understand what the coaches are trying to communicate during the time outs. We are making similar investments and identifying women's talent in India. While we have a date and timeline in our mind, I am a little hesitant to announce it but we see talents from India rocking the global landscape very soon. One name is Prince Paul Singh, he was with us in our academy in Noida and now he has moved to the global academy in Australia.
The creation of a professional league would help us inject Indians into the NBA.Rajesh Sethi
Local leagues play a big role in popularising a sport, take Kabaddi, for example. Is NBA planning to start a professional league in India?
One of the most profitable and strongest leagues of the country is IPL (Indian Premier League). The strongest element of IPL was BCCI. IPL was created around BCCI and cricket is a sport that Indians start playing as a kids. I can say that the NBA is to basketball was BCCI or ICC is to cricket. NBA has the resources and the knowledge to create intellectual properties as we have been doing this for so many years across the world. There is a potential to do a basketball league in India and would help enhance the interest of the game among Indians. The creation of a professional league would help us inject Indians into the NBA. We are into the business of sports and we look at all possible dimensions of what could be done.
Are you happy with the television viewership of NBA in India? As a former broadcaster, what do you make of the numbers?
I look at viewership from the factor of ratings and then I believe in dissecting those ratings and getting into the markets. NBA definitely has some very strong pockets of viewership. There is a definite room for enhancing this viewership. If I segregate digital and linear viewership as two separate mediums, I could see digital viewership at the rate of 100x compared to what I could see at linear television. Remember television viewership is also an outcome of the reach of the distribution platform. At times even when there are fans and viewers in the market, because of the reach of the distribution platform your viewership numbers might be different.