NBA gets serious about cracking UK

Great Britain players Lauren Thomas-Johnson and Drew Sullivan and former US star Clyde Drexler at the launch of Olympics ticket sales
Great Britain players Lauren Thomas-Johnson and Drew Sullivan and former US star Clyde Drexler at the launch of Olympics ticket sales

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the world's biggest and most respected sports organisations, but can it finally build the brand in the UK this year?

Last week, the NBA became the first major sports league in the world to top 5m Twitter followers. That figure is testament to the popularity of the North American basketball competition: more than 350 current and former NBA players are on the social-media site, and between league, team and player profiles, more than 260m people follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

However, basketball is still a comparative minnow in UK sport, dwarfed by football, cricket and rugby.

Battle for popularity

According to Sport England, an average of 151,500 people play basketball at least once a week, compared with more than 2.1m who play football. It is clear, then, that the NBA faces a huge task if it is to rival the popularity of the latter sport in the UK.

Nonetheless, the NBA views the UK as a key market to grow the brand. In March 2011, the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors played twice in London, the first time a regular season match was played outside the US.

With NBA stars set to compete in the UK again this summer - this time for Olympic gold - a major marketing push is under way, as its bosses aim to shake off its niche-sport image. Marketing spoke to Darrell McLennan Fordyce (right), senior director, marketing communications EMEA, at the NBA, about winning over British fans.

How is the NBA perceived in the UK?

We are a challenger brand in the UK and this forms a big part of what we do marketing-wise. In the UK, football is king, so we have to do a lot, not just to raise awareness of the brand, but our products too, such as our merchandise and our TV broadband offering, NBA.tv. The NBA has a powerful brand identity and logo, but there is a big job to do. We have an avid core group of fans, but our challenge is to grow beyond this, and this involves a stronger focus on youth.

How will this marketing strategy manifest itself?

Our strategy is to reach young guys when they are choosing which sports to participate in, and choosing their sporting heroes. The reality is that if you go to any school in the UK, there is a basketball hoop. We just need to crystallise that. Using social media is key. We have NBA star players (from the UK) such as Luol Deng, who help with our marketing activity. We work with Deng's sponsors and management agency to develop the game.

What about sponsors? Are you on the look-out for new ones?

Globally we have partners including Adidas, American Express, Cisco and Coca-Cola.

In Europe, we are always looking for commercial partners. We have had tech and FMCG brands in the past, but we are always looking at all categories for partners.

So how do you convince a hardcore football fan about the excitement of the NBA?

Well, there are similarities between the two sports in terms of athleticism. Football and the NBA are both about the constant flow of the game. The NBA is an incredibly skilful and powerful game, like football. The NBA provides an incredibly exciting evening of entertainment.

Where do you think the NBA brand will be in the UK in five years' time?

Our commissioner, David Stern, talks about having franchises in Europe, and we would like to have more regular-season games in the UK and Europe. From a brand perspective, we would like to work more closely with the UK basketball authorities. We have worked closely with them, but would like to work more collaboratively in the future.

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