Stern pleasantly surprised with global NBA

Updated: August 6, 2006, 1:18 PM ET
Associated Press

GUANGZHOU, China -- How's this for a snapshot of globalization?

Next season, about 100 of the NBA's 450 players -- nearly one in four -- will be from outside the United States.

And even NBA commissioner David Stern, an architect of the league's push into international markets, is startled at how fast the rest of the world has come along.

"I'm surprised at the number of elite athletes from around the world who are in the NBA as of 2006," Stern said Sunday during an interview in Guangzhou, China, where the U.S. national team is playing a series of warmup games leading to this month's world championships in Japan.

Boosted by the popularity of Chinese center Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, the NBA's China business is growing by 30 percent each year, Stern said. The league's China operations already include three offices with about 50 staff and is destined to grow.

"My guess is we'll double it in size by the Beijing Olympics" in 2008, Stern said. "The China market is our most important and largest market outside the United States."

The rise of foreign talent has diminished the dominance the Americans held when their top pros first started playing in international competition. It's a far cry from the days when the Dream Team surged through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

That has put the U.S. players under new pressure, Stern said.

"To recognize that if you don't stay at the top of your game you're going to get knocked off your perch: It's all very good from a competitive perspective," Stern said.

The U.S. team competing in Guangzhou includes LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets and Shane Battier of the Rockets.

Stern declined to give a dollar figure for the NBA's China revenues, saying the league's total foreign business is tiny compared with the U.S. operations.

"It's just going to continue to grow," Stern said, referring to the China business. "It's a very still substantially untapped market for us."

Stern said the NBA will increase its marketing partners in China, sell more merchandise and expand its presence online, possibly offering live streaming of NBA games or downloads of archived games.

He said he also expects the number of Chinese TV stations showing NBA games to double to 50 during the next decade.

The league is also working closely with Beijing's Olympic organizers to make basketball a "very successful part of the Beijing Olympics," Stern said.

The NBA has long emphasized expansion in China, where basketball is exploding in popularity among the younger generation. The NBA launched a Chinese-language edition of its official magazine "Hoops" in 1999 and opened its Beijing office three years later.

In 2004, it played its first exhibition games in China. Stern said more games were planned for China next year, but it wasn't decided whether they'd be preseason games or league games.

Stern said teams were scouting for more Chinese talent, with 19-year-old Yi Jiannian, a 7-foot-2 center on the national team, generating the most buzz.

"My guess and bet is that [Yao] is the first and there will be many more Yao Mings over the next decade," Stern said. "It just stands to reason."

Stern said the league will continue pushing into new markets abroad, with exhibition games planned this year for a handful of nations from Russia to Mexico, as well as games between teams from the NBA and the European leagues.

New initiatives are also planned for India, Eastern and Western Europe, South America and eventually Africa, Stern said.

He said he'd dropped the idea of setting up foreign NBA franchises, saying there were different business plans for each region. He insisted, however, the league would not neglect its core American business.

"So we're on the one hand, trying to assure that the NBA remains successful in the United States, while at the next step develop infrastructure on a global basis to take advantage of the opportunities," Stern said. "China is clearly priority No. 1."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press