Over the last decade, the NBA has increased its efforts to have a presence in Europe. Preseason games have been played in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Turkey as part of its annual Global Games Series.
This season, the NBA will continue to do the same and hold its seventh regular season in London when the Denver Nuggets face off against the Indiana Pacers on January 12, 2017.
With the NBA creating a bigger presence in Europe, many have wondered WHEN, not IF there would be expansion teams east of the Atlantic. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated that there would need to be at least four teams for such an expansion to work in 2015.
That would make sense because of the travel. It doesn’t make sense to have one European team that is burdened with long flights across the Atlantic to play teams in the US and Canada.
Why Europe makes sense for overseas expansion
There are two main reasons why Europe makes the most sense for overseas expansion:
First, basketball is very popular in many if not most European countries. Though it’s not as popular as soccer, European countries — especially in the Southeast Mediterranean and Eastern Bloc — have produced many talented NBA players over the last 20 years. With NBA teams in Europe, this can further cultivate the development of the sport.
After overseas expansion, Europeans now can play at the highest level and possibly play close to home. Conversely, American players who are on these teams could reach worldwide stardom faster than ever before.
Second, there are a sufficient number European markets that can afford to pay for NBA basketball, which goes beyond an arena. The league has been consistent in making sure that games are played in “suitable facilities” based on size and even luxury boxes.
There is also some dissonance between where basketball is most avidly followed in Europe (Southeast Mediterranean and Eastern Bloc) versus the areas that are most likely to have the financial resources to have an NBA team (UK, Benelux, Scandinavia). In the latter, domestic leagues are nowhere near the level of other European regions, but they still are otherwise attractive places to consider.
Before I start listing numbers and where teams should be, here are the assumptions I made and did not make:
- There will be six NBA teams in Europe - This is two more than Commissioner Silver’s initial goal, but six teams sounds like a nice number so there are enough teams located close enough to each other so divisional play doesn’t include ridiculous trans-Atlantic flights.
- All European NBA teams will be in current European Union member states’ cities - The vast majority of western European countries are in the EU except Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway. And though the UK voted to leave it — and this Vox.com explainer can tell you more — they’re still in the EU right now and I included them here.
- There will be one NBA team per country/EU member state - Some countries have a much stronger basketball culture and have multiple markets that can have a team. But to include geographical diversity, there will only be one NBA team in a country.
- The city either has an NBA ready arena already or will build one for the team - Some of the cities I listed do not have an “NBA style arena” in the country, but otherwise make a good case for being a European NBA city. Therefore, we just have to believe that that is going to happen. So just stay with me here.
- I did not assume whether the NBA would create six expansion franchises or convince/buy existing European NBA teams to join the Association.
- Don’t worry about scheduling, etc. This is JUST about what cities the league would expand to.
What are the largest countries in the EU?
First, these are the 10 largest EU member states based on population alone, along with their largest city, some GDP per capita data, official language(s), and whether the NBA has a site for their fans specifically.
As you can see, the NBA is pretty deliberate in its approach with the EU. The five biggest member states all have dedicated official sites AND in their official language. For those in the UK, that doesn’t matter. But I’m sure that the Germans, French, Italians, and Spanish are glad they can read content without referring to Google Translate, even if they can communicate in English.
With the next five biggest member states, two — Poland and Romania — are in the Eastern Bloc. It’s not a surprise that their GDP per capita is considerably lower than that of the Top Five, and with few NBA players from those countries (sorry Marcin and Georghe), they don’t have NBA content in their official languages.
The Netherlands and Belgium are eighth and ninth in population. Despite their economic power, the NBA doesn’t have content in Dutch which affects all Netherlanders and most Belgians. This isn’t surprising because the Benelux is not a basketball powerhouse. Also fans here would probably go to the English, French, and German language sites if they want to read NBA content.
Greece rounds out the Top 10. Their GDP per capita is low in part due to their ongoing economic crisis. But basketball has nothing to do with economics. It is very popular here, and you can read content that is just in Greek.
What are the largest metropolitan areas in the EU?
It’s not terribly surprising that the largest metropolitan areas are coming from the largest EU member states. I’m using this metric in a similar way that we do in the US: Larger metro areas also mean more media exposure within the city where a team is.
Which EU metropolitan areas are the most economically prosperous?
There is no hard and fast metric per se with this. But the total GDP of a metro area is one measure, so here’s the data:
This is where you see the more well-to-do EU member states in the West ranking higher than those in the East. Athens and Warsaw’s metropolitan areas were in the Top 10 based on population, but not on GDP, which is reflective on how Greece and Poland are economically against the likes of the UK, France, and Germany.
Choosing a six-team division
Here are the questions that I wrestled with when determining the six cities in the division:
- Does the NBA invest here? Instead of just asking whether people like basketball (you’ll find someone who does everywhere), countries that already have NBA sites and offices are higher up the short list than those that aren’t.
- Can the market afford NBA basketball tickets? Basketball is generally more popular in Eastern Europe than Western Europe. However, the NBA is not likely to spring up franchises in Eastern Europe because the cost of tickets would likely be too expensive for fans to afford compared with Western markets.
- Would the city be attractive to American NBA players? Over 100 non-Americans were on NBA rosters last season. But most of the rosters and the talent come from the USA. Currently, American players only go overseas when they aren’t good enough for the NBA, so it’s important to be in markets where Americans would want to play in.
- Are there high profile soccer teams to keep an eye on? In Europe, the season starts in the summer July-August and ends in April-May for most leagues, UEFA Champions League and Europa League Play. This coincides with the NBA regular season and most of the playoffs. The NBA can be a success in Europe, but if a bad NBA team is in the same city as a soccer team that is a perennial Champions League contender, it will be a tough road to climb.
- I did not make assumptions on how European NBA teams would be created, whether as pure expansion franchises or the Association convincing existing clubs to be in the NBA.
The first six cities in my hypothetical NBA European Division
Finally, after all of the numbers and answering the above questions, here are the six cities where I would put an NBA team first in this division.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Berlin, Germany
- London, United Kingdom
- Madrid, Spain
- Milan, Italy
- Paris, France
Choosing a city from each of the five largest EU member states was not hard at all. The toughest choice was picking the Netherlands over other countries where the NBA has a presence (Greece) or basketball is more popular (Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic). But as you might have guessed from the data above, economics and shorter travel times between European teams played a factor.
Another set of tough decisions were on which city in Spain and Italy should have an NBA team since they could (and arguably should) have two teams in this division.
Which six cities would you put in your NBA European Division?
Of course, this is just a hypothetical exercise and just my opinion. I’ll give a rationale for each city as to why it should get an NBA team based on the facts and assumptions I gave earlier.
But now it’s time to flip the script. Which six cities would you put in your NBA European division? You don’t have to use strict criteria at all like EU countries only, one team per country, etc. Look forward to seeing your picks.