The process of popularizing National Basketball Association, North America’s top professional basketball league and the game of basketball in general, around the globe started in the 1980’s but it gained serious traction in the 1990’s due to the success, charisma and transcendence of Michael Jordan. The league has since took it upon itself to prioritize certain markets outside North America and help all the 30 franchises build their global fan-bases outside their North American locales. Currently, NBA broadcasts its game in 215 countries and has undertaken other initiatives to assist the rise of the game and the league in different countries.

India is considered to be one of the emerging sporting nations in the world and a transformation in the sporting culture of the nation has presented its audience alternatives to cricket. China is the biggest market for the NBA outside of the United States of America in terms of population but the burgeoning Indian fan-base of the NBA has not gone unnoticed. NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, who is in the country for the inauguration of NBA’s first academy in India in Greater Noida, spoke to the Reuters regarding the ascent of sports such as kabbadi, basketball and football in India.

“Certainly cricket is by far the number one sport in India but we are seeing some rapidly growing sports now. With the availability of these games and these competitions from around the world, I think more and more the sporting culture is starting to change. Now is the time for a sport like the NBA, a league like the NBA to continue to grow our business here.”

One of the primary reason for the explosion in the popularity of basketball and the NBA in China, the world’s most populous nation, was the drafting of the 7 foot 6 center Yao Ming in 2002 to the Houston Rockets. Yao’s emergence in the league coincided with an unprecedented surge in the viewership of the NBA in his home country. Tatum underlines that India lacks a player like Yao Ming who would act as a catalyst to precipitate the process. It looked like India had finally found that gem when Satnam Singh Bhamra became the first Indian to be drafted in the NBA, selected in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. However, his career never gained any momentum and he has been relegated to the NBA’s Developmental League. Tatum is upbeat that it is only a matter of time before India finds their Yao Ming.

“It will happen. I remember Satnam Singh. I had the opportunity to call his name at the draft in 2015. That was a historic moment.

“It’s only a matter of time before we get the Yao Ming of India and it’s possible that Yao Ming of India is right here at our academy today.”

Tatum also illustrated the effect of changing demographics in the country and how that has led to widening of the horizons of the Indian audiences towards other sports.

“(It’s because of) India’s 1.3 billion people, a huge middle class population and a very young demographic, which is starting to think about other sports, like basketball.”

The predominant avenue for NBA’s popularity is its ever-increasing presence on the social and digital media platforms like Facebook and an India-centric website with localized content. NBA established a partnership with Sony Network to broadcasts its games – regular season and playoffs.

Tatum was also asked the reason regarding the selection of the two most populated countries in the world to recently open the academies. He emphasized that there was a need to establish a proper foundation for budding Indian basketball players to propel them to the next-level by providing them NBA-style infrastructure.

“It’s not that passion for the game is not there. In China 300 million play basketball. We thought there was an opportunity to bring NBA-style culture … to these particular markets to make sure we could maximize the potential of the kids. Again, no inherent reason why there shouldn’t be any NBA player from India or from China, none. It’s just how you give them the right training, culture, development and competition.”