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NBA eyeing Europe once more

Mark Woods

Look out! The NBA is coming over to your house to play. 

Speaking in Philadelphia at the 2002 All-Star Weekend, commissioner David Stern predicted that by the end of this decade, the league will have placed franchises in Europe, potentially shuttled to and fro across the pond while greeting the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers on a weekly basis in a town near you. 

A mere fantasy or genuine ambition? 

Stern, a trained lawyer who is rarely prone to making public pronouncements without first exercising due diligence, envisages a four year timetable to come up with the right plan. And while the exact format of the realignment is open for discussion, it is clear that the NBA fully intends to transform itself into a genuine international operation.

"Whether it is by affiliation with existing league or it is a new league or it is actually the placing of NBA teams outside the United States, I think all of those have become very distinct possibilities for us," declared Stern. 

"We have got to spend a fair amount of time meeting with our owners, getting a sense of the investments that they would like to make, and getting our own sense of the basketball world out there. We think that the internationalisation of our sport is now at a stage where
those are not fanciful discussions or thoughts." 

The concept, of course, is not without precedent. Europe has long provided the Holy Grail for growth for America's sporting enterprises.

The National Hockey League, which draws most of its top stars from this side of the Atlantic, has taken an active interest in the sport's development. 

While the National Football League's World League concept broke new ground when its inaugural contest kicked off in London in 1991; now re-branded NFL Europe, it recently signed a co-operation deal with FC Barcelona which will see the Dragons become an adoptive member
of the Nou Camp's sporting family. 

The NFL acknowledges that in the longer-term, it too harbours ambitions to pit teams from over here in meaningful opposition against rivals from over there.

"With the speed of travel and instant communication, someday you would hope to see that the league would expand," John Beake, NFL Europe's managing director reveals. 

"You have North America, Europe and Asia and who knows what that is going to bring? I would imagine that the long term vision would be to have NFL teams in Europe."

Thus far, the NBA's international ventures have proven troublesome. The biennial McDonald's Championships, which pitted the reigning American champions against Europe's top sides, has been indefinitely mothballed while last autumn's NBA Europe Games, featuring Minnesota and Toronto, were abruptly cancelled in the wake of September 11. 

Closer to base, the Vancouver Grizzlies, one of the NBA's two Canadian entrants, upped
sticks and moved south to Memphis last year in defiance of Stern's universal agenda. 

"Realistically, the places where we could place NBA teams would be Mexico and Europe, from a travel perspective," Stern offers. Stepping over the USA's southern border, where basketball enjoys a healthy following, would be relatively simple, the main obstacle finding a backer rich enough to cough up the likely franchise fee of around £100 million. 

Beating a path into the Old Continent would not be as straightforward. 

When Stern first raised the idea during a visit to Milan in 1999, Europe's leading teams bristled and threw back a frosty glare of disdain. Many are backed by monied football clubs and have invested
hefty sums into the two year old Euroleague, an independent super league which has mirrored many of the NBA's ideas.

And objections have been raised from those who matter most - the players - with Gary Payton among a number to voice immediate concerns about the problems associated with such long journeys.

The suggestions of one-way cultural imperialism may be quelled by the recent influx of European players into America's showcase league. As consolation, Stern has also mooted a proposal to create an annual Ryder Cup-style 'America versus the Rest of the World' challenge. 

Yet how would Real Madrid or Panathinaikos react if the NBA were to unilaterally conjure the Madrid Mateadors or Athens Air Pollutors out of nowhere? In a departure from prior expansion, the NBA would surely need to incorporate the existing incumbents into the fold rather than merely
auctioning to the highest bidder. 

The availability of large arenas will remain paramount in determining the way forward, criteria which would keep London and Manchester in the frame. The hypothesis though is no longer unrealistic. 

Not when it has Stern backing.

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