AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Chiara Zanini of Milan, Italy, one of 160 media representatives from outside the United States assigned to cover the NBA Finals, unabashedly admits that before she became a journalist, she hung posters of NBA stars on her bedroom walls.
"You are the perennial showtime to us," she said last week.
The world's fascination with the NBA and its marquee players has fueled Commissioner David Stern's vision for increasing the league's international popularity, which crystallized in 1992 with the introduction of the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. Regular-season games now are played in Japan, with exhibitions and clinics staged in virtually every corner of the world.
"Globalization is a huge opportunity for us," said Stern, who last year called basketball a "universal language about to bloom on a global basis."
The proliferation of cable and satellite outlets all but guarantees that the NBA's TV ratings in the U.S. will never again approach the league's heyday when it featured superstars Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan -- U.S. ratings for the Finals have fallen by about half since peaking in 1998 -- but Stern sees room for growth everywhere else.
He sees it in terms of international television and marketing, foreign stars continuing to add luster to the NBA and, ultimately, expansion to Europe.
This year's Finals, matching the Lakers and Detroit Pistons and continuing with Game 5 tonight at Auburn Hills, Mich., will reach fans in 205 countries with broadcasts in 39 languages, the NBA says. For the first time, the championship series is being broadcast in Armenian, Belorussian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Swedish and Polish.
As much as 20% of the NBA's $900 million in annual TV revenue reportedly is generated from foreign rights. More than half the hits on the NBA's website originate outside the United States, the NBA says. About 20% of NBA merchandise is sold internationally, a figure the league expects to someday exceed 50%. And NBA TV, the 24-hour television network launched by the league in 1999, is available in 39 countries.
The other U.S. sports leagues also have made inroads internationally: The NFL operates a league in Europe; Major League Baseball opened its season in Japan this year; and the NHL has watched its international TV revenue triple over the last decade. But the NBA was at the forefront in its globalization efforts.
"Basketball is the second-most popular sport in the world, so that obviously has impacted it," said Larry McCarthy, a sports marketing expert at the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall University. "But in fairness to the NBA, they've been more proactive than the other leagues in terms of understanding where they are and understanding the popularity of their product."
The NBA has been thinking globally almost from the day Stern took over as commissioner 20 years ago. In 1986, the NBA became the first U.S. sports league to launch international TV distribution rights and operations. In 1988, it began syndicating a Spanish-language game of the week.
The league has sent teams overseas for exhibition games since 1988, when the Boston Celtics played in the first McDonald's Open at Madrid. Since then, exhibitions have been played as far afield as Italy, France, Germany, England, Russia, Israel, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
In October, the NBA will become the first U.S. professional sports league to play in China when the Houston Rockets, featuring Chinese center Yao Ming, meet the Sacramento Kings in exhibitions at Beijing and Shanghai. The same month, the Utah Jazz will play an exhibition game in Moscow.
Stern has said the NBA eventually will expand into Europe, but he has not revealed a timetable. He indicated last week that a lack of newer arenas in Europe had delayed his plans, but he said a first step toward expansion would be for NBA teams to hold training camps in European cities, probably in the next few years.
Also adding to the NBA's global appeal is the growing influx of foreign stars. Opening-night rosters this season included 73 international players from 34 countries and territories, among them Laker reserve Slava Medvedenko from Ukraine and Piston reserves Mehmet Okur from Turkey and Darko Milicic from Serbia and Montenegro.
"In the not-too-distant future, there's going to be as many elite players on other continents as there are in the United States," Stern said before the All-Star game in February at Staples Center. "Once, that was unthinkable. If I'd suggested to you that there'd be 75 international [NBA] players a decade ago, you would've laughed at me.
"I'm telling you, does anyone think that Yao Ming is the last great player to come out of China? With all those hundreds of millions of people there watching him?"