Mairu Gupta and the art of building the NBA in India

MUMBAI: For basketball fans worldwide, the US National Basketball Association (NBA) represents the mecca of the sport. But in India, the NBA has had its task cut out, what with cricket presenting a near impenetrable line of defence as far as Indian audiences are concerned. However, the NBA has been making steady breaks over the past five years and has forged partnerships with the likes of broadcast network Sony Pictures Network India, schools where it has set up basketball training centres, and introduced a fantasy game.

It has set an ambitious goal to make it the number two sport in the country, a goal which even it knows is not going to be a cakewalk as the investment required is huge. “The NBA is more popular in India than ever before and basketball has become one of the fastest growing sports in India among both boys and girls. Last season (2016-17), we reached a record number of 125 million fans for NBA programming on TV across India,” says NBA India senior director global media distribution Mairu Gupta.

The association has been upping the hours of programming it puts out on Sony Pictures Network India – its broadcast network partner. 14 live games a week with English commentary have been aired on Sony Six and Sony Six HD throughout this season, and more than 80 games with two games every weekend with Hindi in-game commentary have started getting airtime on Sony Ten 3 and Sony Ten 3 HD from this season.

Then the sport has been getting a lot of traction on buzzing outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Says Gupta: “The digital footprint is an important part of the fan acquisition and engagement strategy in the market and we have clocked a billion impressions on social media platforms. Digital remains a priority as we understand that many of our fans are mobile-first and consuming the content through new media. . Our fan base has doubled across social media assets last season and we have had over 160 million video views through last season.”

NBA live streamed a game via Facebook live for the first time on 8 January last season between the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. The game reached two million unique fans on TV and attracted over 0.3 million views on Facebook as per the data provided by NBA.

It is also apparently attracting north Indian viewers. The tournament was simulcast on Sony Ten 1 and Sony Six which drew 9 million all-India viewers and delivered a HSM (Hindi speaking market) contribution of close to 50 per cent.

China is one of the NBA’s biggest markets outside the US. Its aim is to make India edge up to the former’s levels. The association has taken leaps in hooking Indians to this game. Right from setting up centres in schools to introducing a fantasy game, it has progressed since it launched here five years ago. NBA officially announced the opening of India’s first academy on the outskirts of Delhi on 9 May 2017.

“Basketball is a niche sport in India, hence needs a lot of marketing and promotional muscle to be put behind it. Then there is the need to have as many courts as possible so that young people can join in and take a shot at basketball just like cricket can be played anywhere,” says a media observer.

It is hoping to catch them young and make them learn about the sport, its stars and interact with it a lot more. For this purpose, it has partnered with
Indian fantasy gaming company Dream11 to launch a free-to-play NBA fantasy game.

Globally, basketball is the second most followed sport on Facebook, ranked by the number of people who follow at least one page connected to the sport, with cricket in fourth place. According to Meltwater, an online media intelligence company, football was the subject of 8.5 million new articles from 21 February 2016 to 21 February 2017, a third of the total number of all sports. Basketball was second, with 4.25 million, while cricket had 1.6 million – 6 per cent of the total, which was below baseball, tennis and rugby.

Looking at the numbers on Facebook Live for the NBA in India, Mairu has rolled out a special NBA India mobile app. Says he: “Starting this season, we’ve launched an enhanced mobile app for fans in India providing lighter and faster access. The app provides fans in India with localised content, an enhanced user experience and reduced size. It supports low-bandwidth options to help users minimise their data consumption.”

Amongst the customised shows figures the weekly highlight show – NBA Weekly, which focuses on the lifestyle and culture of basketball; NBA Hangout for which it has partnered with TVF and Sony Six. It airs the daily 30-minute game recaps which have been broadcast during prime time during the season.

Says Gupta: “India is a priority market for the NBA and we are committed to growing the game and our fan base. We work with partners across programmes to ensure maximum amplification around our initiatives- be it with Reliance Foundation, India on Track, Jabong, Jack & Jones or Gatorade.”

Diehard hoopsters would surely approve.

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