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.”


Man United beats Chelsea 2-0, throws open race for Champions League spots

Updated 18 February 2020

Man United beats Chelsea 2-0, throws open race for Champions League spots

  • Headers by Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire ensured the win

LONDON: Manchester United threw open the race for the final Champions League qualification spots in the Premier League by beating fourth-place Chelsea 2-0 thanks to headers by Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire on Monday.
With 12 games remaining, seven points separate Chelsea and 11th-place Burnley, with the team finishing fifth also set to earn a place in next season’s Champions League following UEFA’s decision to punish Man City for serious breaches of financial regulations by handing the English champions a two-year European ban.
Martial glanced in a header off a right-wing cross by Aaron Wan-Bissaka to give United the lead in the 45th minute at Stamford Bridge, before Maguire planted home a corner from January signing Bruno Fernandes in the 66th.
Maguire, United’s captain, was perhaps fortunate to still be on the field, with the match officials opting not to punish the England defender for appearing to kick out at Michy Batshuayi after tumbling off the playing surface in front of the dugouts.
“I know I caught him but I felt like he was going to fall on me and the natural reaction was to straighten my leg so that if he was to fall on me, to hold him up,” Maguire said. “It probably looks worse than it was.
“I did catch him ... but I knew at the time I had no intent to hurt him or kick him.”
Chelsea was on the wrong end of two other decisions by VAR, firstly disallowing a volleyed goal by Kurt Zouma in the 56th because of a push by Cesar Azpilicueta on United left back Brandon Williams. Azpilicueta seemed to have been pushed a split-second earlier by Fred.
Then, with 13 minutes to go, substitute Olivier Giroud had a goal ruled out by VAR for a tight offside, leaving Chelsea manager Frank Lampard looking thoroughly glum as he sat in his technical area.
Chelsea has long been in fourth place, but has only won three of its last 11 games in the league to give a slew of rivals clubs hope of catching up.
One of them is United, which climbed to seventh place with this win — three points behind Chelsea and two adrift of fifth-place Tottenham.
“This season, we have been far too inconsistent,” Maguire said. “We have won at Manchester City, beat Chelsea at home, got a point against Liverpool, but we have let ourselves down against the teams where the pressure is on to break them down.”
Injury problems are starting to bite at Chelsea, too. Top scorer Tammy Abraham and winger Callum Hudson-Odoi missed the game because of injury, while central midfielder N’Golo Kante lasted 11 minutes before hobbling off. Center back Andreas Christensen didn’t come out for the second half after sustaining a knock to the head late in the first period, just before Martial beat the Denmark defender to a header for the first goal.
Lampard’s main gripe, though, was his team’s failure to finish off chances once again. Batshuayi was the biggest culprit, spurning two great chances in the first half in his first start in the league this season.
“We are fourth because of some of the good stuff we’ve done and because of the nature of the league, everyone taking points off each other,” Lampard said. “But there’s a lot of work to do because you can see the problem — that’s putting the ball in the back of the net.
“I feel like a broken record. We have to put things to bed by scoring goals.”
Chelsea hosts Tottenham on Saturday and would finally get overtaken with another loss.
“The season starts here,” Lampard said.
Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo, who signed for United on deadline day in the January transfer window, came on in second-half stoppage time for his debut and had a late chance saved by Willy Caballero, who again started in goal ahead of Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Two players struck the post from free kicks in the second half, Fernandes for United and Mason Mount for Chelsea.