NBA scores on debut in cricket-mad India but questions remain

Yogi Ferrell of the Sacramento Kings shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, October 5, 2019 at NSCI Dome in Mumbai, India. (NBAE via Getty Images/AFP)
Updated 06 October 2019

NBA scores on debut in cricket-mad India but questions remain

  • In a country where cricket reigns supreme, basketball has long struggled to make a mark in India
  • Basketball enjoys a limited appeal in the country of 1.3 billion people

MUMBAI: Seconds after the NBA’s first games in India ended, the packed Mumbai stadium erupted with cheers as spectators — some of whom were still struggling to understand basketball etiquette — rose to their feet.
In a country where cricket reigns supreme, basketball has long struggled to make a mark, and the NBA took no chances, launching a promotional blitzkrieg before the pre-season games between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers.
As Indiana Pacers power forward Myles Turner, who helped his team to victories on Friday and Saturday, put it: “When you think of basketball, you don’t necessarily think of India.”
But the 7,000 sold-out seats and howls of enthusiasm at Saturday’s match suggested that, at least for some Indians, basketball matters.
“It was an exhilarating experience ... a brilliant experience,” said 22-year-old graduate student Akash Saraswati, who saved up for his ticket costing more than $90.
Even a broken leg could not stop him traveling to Mumbai from the neighboring city of Pune. “I didn’t hesitate,” he said.
Many of those who packed the stands were die-hard fans like Saraswati, traveling from as far afield as Delhi and Bangalore.
Others were there for a taste of something new, grappling with the rules as they watched the players dribble, dive and dunk.
“There’s so much grace and effortless co-ordination among the players. It’s beautiful to watch,” said sales executive Rajesh Kamble, who admitted he was still trying to figure out the sport.
The game may have confused some, but the entertainment was familiar territory — Bollywood dances replaced cheerleader routines and a Mumbai hip-hop group took over the floor before the tip-off.
The courtside audience included celebrities such as Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. The biggest ovation of the night however was for NBA legend Larry Bird, whose presence brought the crowd to its feet.
But questions remain about how much the NBA — whose 2017-18 season revenue was a staggering $8 billion, according to Forbes — is willing to invest in India and whether its audience will be restricted to hardcore fans and wealthy urbanites.
“The fact that the circus has come to town is a great thing,” said Vishal Jhunjhunwala, partner at Mumbai-based sports marketing firm, Square Consulting.
“But what happens once the circus leaves town?
“You need a local connect, a superstar with Indian roots for basketball to take off. That doesn’t exist at the moment, unlike say China where the presence of a star like Yao Ming galvanized his whole country into following the sport,” Jhunjhunwala said.
No Indian player has ever taken part in an NBA game and although NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters that he hopes to see that change within five years, few are holding their breath.
And, unlike cricket which is played everywhere from India’s slums to members’ clubs, basketball enjoys a limited appeal in the country of 1.3 billion people.
The cheapest ticket for Saturday’s game cost 4,500 rupees ($65), going up to an astronomical 85,000 rupees for courtside seats. In comparison, a season pass for next week’s second Test between India and South Africa in Pune tops out at 5,000 rupees.
Although the high price did not deter well-heeled sports fans, analysts say the NBA risks losing out on a huge chunk of India’s audience if it doesn’t build up mass appeal.
“You are asking people to spend a lot to watch a sport they don’t know much about,” said Jhunjhunwala.
To those in the stands, however, the spectacle was well worth the big bucks.
“I am a cricket fan but... basketball also has huge potential and hopefully this is the start of a new sporting journey,” said 25-year-old Danish Contractor.
In his comments, the NBA’s Silver said the games “required us bringing in a court, a scoreboard, seats, locker rooms” to Mumbai.
They will have to do much more if the sport is to have a long-term future in the country, experts say as the NBA pre-season Asia tour now heads off to Japan and China for further matches over the coming week.
“One game isn’t going to turn India into a basketball-loving nation. But it’s a first step,” said Jhunjhunwala.
“If they lose money on it, well, they have deep pockets.”


Formula E teams full speed on pre-season testing ahead of Diriyah E Prix

Updated 20 October 2019

Formula E teams full speed on pre-season testing ahead of Diriyah E Prix

DUBAI: Formula E racing fans were treated to a preview of next month’s Diriyah E Prix when all 12 teams lined up at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain for a three-day pre-season testing session.

The teams, with newcomers Porsche and Mercedes-Benz EQ joining the roster, have been busy preparing for the new season – including the Valencia pre-season test on October 15 to 18 – that will feature the same Gen2 cars as the previous year with both attack mode and fan boost features being used for the second year in a row.

This year’s Diriyah E-Prix promises to eclipse the inaugural 2018 edition, with two races instead of one, being staged at the UNESCO world heritage site of Ad Diriyah.

DS Techeetah team’s Jean-Eric Vergne won the 2018/2019 season championship, making him the first Formula E driver in history to win multiple driver championships.