When the National Basketball Association (NBA) was founded in 1946, it was meant to be, well, "national," based solely in the United States. But the league is increasingly setting its sights abroad, said Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall.
“From an international front, the NBA has been working very hard to give all the 30 teams an opportunity to actually have international partners,” she recently told Yahoo Finance. “So, they've opened that up to us. And so now we just need to figure out what markets we want to go into. How can we engage international fans, and so we try to pay attention to the numbers there to see where we should go.”
In recent years, the NBA has worked to build strong relationships with foreign countries. For example, the league conducts outreach through Basketball without Borders, a program that promotes basketball and gives international players a chance to play in front of NBA officials and potentially get recruited by NBA officials. The NBA also facilitates global preseason games around the world, including in Mexico, Italy, and Japan.
“We played a game in Mexico a few years ago. So that was exciting. We're hoping that we get an opportunity to play an international preseason game next year,” Marshall said. “And so now we just need to figure out what markets we want to go into. How can we engage international fans and so we try to pay attention to the numbers there to see where we should go”
The NBA’s roster currently features 120 players from other countries. With seven international players, the Mavericks are tied with the Sacramento Kings, the Indiana Pacers, and fall just behind the Toronto Raptors for most international players in the NBA.
Foreign players often help the NBA popularize basketball in other counties. For instance, Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets center, helped popularize basketball in China. In 2004, the league became the first American professional sports league to play in China, with a pair of Rockets’ preseason games.
“We, meaning the Dallas Mavericks, have one of the most international teams in the NBA,” Marshall said. “So that's something that we really have to step back and take advantage of.”
The Mavericks’ star player, Luka Dončić, comes from Slovenia and plays on the country’s national team during the NBA's off season. He is one of several players on the team that also play for countries abroad.
“So even during the offseason, we have about four or five guys who play for their countries,” Marshall said. "And we follow that, and we watch it, and we get excited about it. It truly is an international sport. And it's so you're talking about diversity is so great to see all these people coming together for the love of the game.”
In 2019, the NBA and the International Basketball Federation formed its first league outside of North America: the Basketball Africa League, which features 12 club teams from throughout Africa. The league’s inaugural season began and ended in spring 2021.
“I got really excited about the basketball African league,” Marshall said.
The NBA has shown further signs of moving in a more international direction. The league recently increased its International Team Marketing Plan to allow up to 10 international sponsors outside of the U.S. and Canada, according to reporting by Sportico.com.
“There's so much good stuff going on in this industry,” Marshall said. “Fans are excited and so we just have to take advantage of it. We just have to take it to a new level.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Dallas Mavericks are tied with the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers for number of international players.
Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.