DeKALB — NBA basketball has become a global phenomenon, sprouting international fan bases since the United States Men’s Basketball Team took the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona by storm.
The amount of talent coming from overseas to the league is noticeable now more than ever. International players dominated the 2019 NBA awards. Milwaukee Bucks’ Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo was the NBA MVP. Denver Nuggets’ French Rudy Gobert was the Defensive Player of the Year. Dallas Mavericks’ Slovanian Luka Dončić made a statement with Rookie of the Year. Toronto Raptors’ Cameroonian Pascal Siakam turned heads, winning the Most Improved Player of the Year while helping the Raptors win a franchise-first NBA championship.
The NBA hosts exhibition games around the world like the 2019 India Games, where the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings will face each other in two different preseason matches. The matches are to be played Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 at the Dome, NSCI, SVP, Stadium in Mumbai.
The India Games is one of many global events which sparked speculations of the NBA looking to expand beyond North America. One European franchise has reached out to the NBA in hopes of making that expansion a reality.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has expressed desire in seeing the club’s basketball team play in the NBA, according to Ben Hayward of Evening Standard. Perez said he asked the NBA to be included in the Eastern Conference, but the NBA denied him. Real Madrid joining the NBA would take the league’s globalization to new levels; however, it more than likely wouldn’t work.
There would be many challenges facing a franchise outside the United States, especially one that would be across the ocean. The NBA granted Canada the first international expansion franchises in 1993, but it took two years before Toronto and Vancouver Grizzlies debuted in the 1995-96 season. It took a while for the NBA to cement its popularity in Canada. While the Raptors hit the jackpot with the electric Vince Carter, the Grizzlies weren’t as fortunate.
Vancouver had a few minor stars like Mike Bibby, Bryant Reeves and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Injuries, poor play and bad draft picks like Steve Francis, who refused to play for the team after being drafted in 1999, led the Grizzlies to relocate to Memphis ahead of the 2001-02 season. Adding insult to injury, the Grizzlies had just acquired Spaniard Pau Gasol on draft night, days before the move was approved by the NBA Board of Governors.
With all the struggles the Canadian franchises faced in their attempt to find a place in the NBA, it seems nearly impossible for one from Spain to succeed. The first major obstacle for Real Madrid coming to the NBA would be travel. Traveling across the US can take a toll on teams going on the road, but a team based in Spain would be traveling thousands of miles to play a road game. Players nowadays complain about the 82 game schedule the league has had for decades. Even after the league has virtually eliminated back-to-back games, scheduling games would be a nightmare for the league.
Will a European power house basketball team like Real Madrid succeed in the NBA?
Real Madrid Baloncesto is one of the most dominant teams in European basketball, winning a league-best 10 EuroLeague championships. Club President Florentino Perez has expressed interest in moving his team to the NBA.
The largest obstacle would be convincing players to relocate and remain in Spain. This has been a major issue for Toronto. Lou Williams spoke about living in Toronto as a Raptors player on “The No Chill Podcast,”hosted by Gilbert Arenas.
“Once you’re there, you’ll love playing for the Raptors,” Williams said. “You’ll love playing for the country. That fourth, fifth month into the season, you’re [going to] want to go home. When you play in Toronto, you feel like you’re playing overseas.”
Like Williams, several star players have left the Raptors in their prime, including Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh and the 2019 Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard.
Toronto at least is very close to the United States geographically, and not too far off culturally. Spain does not have that luxury. Real Madrid would have to ask players to commit to living thousands of miles from their families, friends, homes and lifestyles. While Spain is a beautiful country, its market will not have the same draw that markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have. Paying taxes to two separate countries is not too appealing either.
There have been talks of the NBA expanding for years, mostly after the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City. The fans in Seattle desperately want their team back, and would almost certainly be the first market to get a nod from the NBA. Seattle is one of the largest markets in the country with teams in the NFL, MLS and MLB. Several former Sonics players, like Kevin Durant rave about their time in the city and their desire to see the NBA return to Seattle according to ESPN.
“It’s a basketball city,” Durant said. “It’s a sports town. They have a good representation of basketball in the NBA from Seattle-born players and Washington state-born players.”
Durant’s words couldn’t be closer to the truth. However, it’s not just Seattle that Madrid would have to worry about. Vancouver has been linked to conversations about receiving another franchise, after several highly-attended preseason games in recent years and renewed enthusiasm for NBA basketball.
Former NBA markets like St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Baltimore and San Diego would present a major challenge as well, especially since many of them boast successful franchises in other major leagues.
Even markets that never had an NBA franchise like Las Vegas would be more plausible than a team in Spain. The success of the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, the relocation of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League have fueled franchise interests.
It’s great to see the NBA take major strides in globalizing its brand. While the popularity of professional basketball is growing through Basketball Without Borders, international games and preseason games, expanding beyond North America is unlikely. For now, international cities and countries will have to settle for watching their homegrown players make it in the NBA.