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It's Not Futbol, but NBA's Global Appeal Is Growing

June 08, 2002|LARRY STEWART

The World Cup draws an estimated 500 million viewers from around the world every day.

The NBA Finals certainly don't have that kind of global appeal, but they draw plenty of international attention.

There are no official estimates as to how many people worldwide watch the NBA Finals, but NBA Executive Vice President Heidi Ueberroth said audiences are continuing to grow.

Play-by-play announcer Anthony Suntay of the Philippines, who called Friday night's game from Staples Center, said about 15 million of the 76 million people in his country would be watching Game 2, which was televised live at 9 a.m. Suntay said the NBA has been popular in his country for nearly two decades.

Japanese television play-by-play announcer Naotaka Hirota said about a million people would be watching in his country. The game was shown live at 10 a.m. in Japan.

He said the World Cup in his country is drawing television audiences that are about three times that.

The NBA Finals are available in more than 205 countries and 750 million homes. The coverage is delivered in 36 languages, including Creole, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic and Maltese.

Counting the television, Internet, film and digital technology available through NBA Entertainment, each game has the ability to reach 2.5 billion people.

More than 150 international media members, mostly print journalists, are covering the Finals in person, and 30 international networks are beaming the games back to their countries.

Game 2 was televised at 3 a.m. in Italy. Italian commentator Federico Buffa, who was at Staples Center on Friday night, said maybe 300,000 Italians would stay up to watch the game.

On the other hand, he said 80% of the country's 60 million people would be watching Italy take on Croatia in the World Cup.

"It a different audience," Buffa said. "The NBA attracts more youngsters."

Asked if Kobe Bryant, who lived in Italy in his youth, was the most popular NBA player in his county, Buffa said that honor belonged to Allen Iverson.

"The people like his me-against-the-world attitude," Buffa said. "But Kobe is very popular, maybe No. 3. Shaquille O'Neal is also very popular."

As for how Buffa became Italy's top basketball commentator, he said it wasn't because of his basketball skills.

"Mainly, I'm a journalist," Buffa said.

Howard Cosell would have loved that.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, interviewed before the game, said he is pleased with the game's international growth and sees room for more growth.

He cited the NBA Entertainment channel's NBA TV, available in 10 million DirecTV homes and 10 million digital cable homes, as an area where growth is expected. The channel this season was carried in three foreign countries--Israel, Turkey and Greece. He said it would be available in 10 foreign countries next season.

NBA Executive Vice President Gregg Winik, who has been with the NBA Entertainment division since 1990 and whose father Barry was with NBA Entertainment before that, says the 1992 Olympic Dream Team was the catalyst for huge international growth.

The other thing, Winik said, was the arrival of satellite technology in the early 1990s.

"We used to have to ship tapes and literally bicycle them around the world," he said.

Stern established NBA Entertainment, the equivalent of NFL Films, when he was NBA executive vice president in 1982.

"We had spent $130,000 to buy each team a VCR and pay someone to monitor each telecast and ship them to New York," he said. "We needed to centralize things."

NBA Entertainment's initial functions included documenting games and events and creating programs such as "NBA Inside Stuff" to promote the league.

International television coverage soon fell under NBA Entertainment's umbrella.

Stern remembers when a man representing Italian TV came into his office in 1983.

"CBS had cut its coverage to four regular-season games and the man wanted to know if we could provide him with game telecasts," Stern said. "He wanted to know how much we would charge per game.

"I said, 'What was CBS charging you?' He said, '$5,000 a game.' I said, 'Then that's what we will charge.' "

And that was the start of the NBA becoming a global sport.

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