Basketball’s not one of the most watched sports in Europe, but its fan base is growing all the time and it’s probably quite a bit more popular than people realize. NBA Commissioner David Stern has long talked about expanding the league overseas, but he’s got more important things on his mind at the moment, such as trying to save some of the current clubs.
The idea of an NBA presence in Europe is still on the agenda though, but it might be quite a few years down the road. In the meantime, European fans will have to make do with the occasional game that’s thrown their way. This will happen this week as the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets travel across the Atlantic and play each other in London, England, for the league’s first ever European regular-season games.
Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA’s International President, said this was the first step in building a bigger fan base in the European market, where other sports such as soccer, rugby, and cricket are the most popular.
The Raptors and Nets hope to put on a good show as they pair up at the O2 Arena on March 4 and 5. London fans have already had the opportunity to witness live NBA games as the league has played exhibition contests there in the past. The game on March 5 is a sellout and it’s expected the other game will also be fill the arena to the rafters when it gets underway.
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Other European cities have also hosted exhibition basketball games over the years, but the NBA figured England was the best place to play regular season games because the city will host the Summer Olympics next year. The league plans to continue holding pre-season games across the pond, but figured the time was right to play games that count in the standings and found the Raptors and Nets were both intrigued with the idea.
Oddly, the same two teams might have a hard time selling out their home rinks against each other, but they’re pretty popular overseas. In fact, there are six international players on the Raptors, the most on one team in the league. New Jersey is owned by Mikhail Prokhorov, who’s a Russian billionaire and he’s interested in garnering a world-wide fan base. The teams’ recent trade for Deron Williams has also created a buzz, but Williams isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play in England due to a hand injury.
The basketball games aren’t the only show in town though. The NBA will be holding a variety of competitions, fan events, and clinics while it’s over in England. This will give the league an idea of just how popular it is over there. It also announced that the NBA, U.S. Olympic teams and WNBA will visit Manchester, England, to play games in the next two years.