Today marks mark the seventh time the NBA has played a regular-season game in London, and the first time your Denver Nuggets have had the honor of playing a regular-season game overseas. Denver’s three previous NBA Global Games have always been pre-season affairs.
A weird plus/minus to the trip: on the downside, the Nuggets have the semi-inglorious luck of using up a home game on this extended roadie as the “home team”. I’m certain that designation will have the sold-out British crowd cheering far more vocally for their “home” team, right? Well, maybe. More on that from Evan Fiala in a sec.
On the upside, at least the Nuggets will completely sell out one home appearance this season, even if it’s nearly 4,700 miles off target. Glass half full, and all.
The NBA’s international games are a huge part of the league’s strategy to continue to grow the sport outside the U.S., hopefully turning basketball into a global powerhouse. The game has taken root in many countries worldwide, though ESPN published a thought-provoking article today about why the UK has yet to have fallen for basketball in a meaningful way.
Nevertheless, commissioner Adam Silver has been quoted as saying he expects the league to have teams playing in Europe by the 2030’s, and hopes to see other expansions internationally as well. One imagines separate competitive leagues within specific geographic boundaries for play... or a return to supersonic travel. Otherwise, those back-to-back games between the West Coast and Barcelona could really end up being rough.
The league continues apace in its plans for global domination, with over 100 international players now playing in the league in each of the last two seasons. That expansion has certainly benefited the Nuggets, with Danilo Gallinari, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, and Juancho Hernangomez all having played their early careers overseas. Denver has also been a fan of international players on draft night under Tim Connelly’s watch, in no small part due to the team’s exceptional scouting system in Europe and the Baltic region. The Nuggets have fans in several of those areas in no small part due to the Euros on their squad. Evan Fiala made an excellent point in today’s game preview: the Nuggets might enjoy a favorable crowd, simply in that they have four Euro-or-Euro-adjacent players to the Pacers zero. Well thought, Fiala. Better than anything I got.
More broadly, the NBA now enjoys hotbeds of fandom in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Eastern bloc. If the league can somehow get a fan base going strong in Antarctica, they’re very close to winning the sports version of Risk. That the league has so much more headroom to grow in each of those areas only further illuminates the massive opportunity still before the league.
Though the game has not made traction in every country, it’s growth curve in popularity has been larger over the last decade than any of the other top 10 sports, globally, going from an estimated 400 million fans in 2006 to nearly 850 million this past year. While that leaves the game far shy of the 4 billion fans currently enjoying soccer, basketball is making headway in its massive undertaking with columnists from places like Forbes openly wondering when the NBA might overtake the NFL in global popularity.
To the long view, basketball may be the only sport that competes with soccer/football’s accessibility favorably. A part of soccer’s broad global appeal is borne out of images seen of the game being played in jungles, on fields or dirt, sand or concrete. I played the game myself in the snow in Colorado and on the beach in California. Soccer has also had nearly 2,000 years age-of-creation advantage in taking hold. Plus, a player of nearly any height can play soccer, short or tall.
But basketball has a smaller team size, a smaller field size, an environment more easily adapted to the indoors, cheap equipment, and easy drama. Whether you’re watching a pro in his prime, or your five-year-old in the driveway, you want to see the ball go through the net.
So, how does any of this matter to tonight’s Denver Nuggets? In the near term, it doesn’t, aside from placing a few gents on the team closer to their homes for a few than at any point during the rest of the regular season. Jet lag and some lovely travel photos will be the surest souvenirs of the trip, with a hopeful home win in tow as well).
Over the long haul, who knows? Maybe a future Nuggets superstar (with a heavy cockney accent) will be in attendance tonight to cheer on the home squad, and will take home a Nuggets jersey of their own. Which Denver player will inspire such awe and loyalty? Let’s hope there are a few to choose from.
The NBA is building that loyalty one new fan at a time, but at a rate nearly viral in nature, across the globe. How does the game impact the people and places it’s starting to inspire, Nuggets Nation? What will we see the game of basketball become in this lifetime?