Last month, Miami Heat player Chris Bosh traveled to India. Wearing a "Namaste Bosh" ("Welcome Bosh") T-shirt, he hung out with children in Mumbai, teaching them dribbling and leading cheers. But this was no humanitarian trip in the wake of the Heat's second championship in as many years: It's part of a well-orchestrated effort by the National Basketball Association to make an all-American game hugely popular in India.
In the past seven years, 22 NBA and WNBA players have traveled to India, including Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. In 2011, the NBA opened its first office in India, and appointed Yannick Colaco to head it up. In April, the big cheese himself— NBA Commissioner David Stern—went to Mumbai to launch an "NBA Cares" program to introduce the sport to youth.
Why is India a priority for the league? The hope is to create more Chinas. According to Heidi Ueberroth, NBA president-international, the league has been developing the game there for 30 years, and China is now the NBA's largest market outside the U.S.
PricewaterhouseCoopers in a 2011 report projected that BRIC sports-market revenue would reach $10.4 billion in 2015—with India posting a compound growth rate of 5% between 2011 and 2015, compared to China's 3.3%. In 2010, sports-market revenue was $8.3 billion.
Mr. Colaco, general manager for the NBA in India, said the country is an ideal place to grow the sport. For one, it requires little space—a commodity in major Indian cities like Mumbai or New Delhi. "Basketball has a major advantage over every other sport in that all you need to play is a hoop, a flat surface and a ball," he said. For two, there's the demographics. According to India's National Council for Skill Development, half of India's population is under the age of 25 and 65% is under 35. The youth population—aged 15 to 34—is expected to increase to 464 million by 2021, making India the youngest country in the world.
But what's remarkable about the NBA's effort in the market is its speed—or lack thereof. Mr. Colaco is emphatic that the league doesn't just want to increase the number of people watching basketball, but focus on grassroots development to seed long-term growth.
"They are not in it for overnight gains," said Nikhil Sharma, chief operating officer of sports-management company Anglian Management Group. "They're patiently going about building traction and a great fan entrenchment."
A basic interest in basketball by Indians already exists (coaches are plentiful, for example), but what's needed is infrastructure, which is what led the NBA to organize 450 events at the local level over the last few years. This August, it will launch a comprehensive amateur three-on-three tournament featuring Indian colleges, an attempt to get them "engaged" in the NBA brand, Mr. Colaco said.
The brand also airs a local TV spot featuring an Indian kid dribbling a basketball with some flair on a street. The tagline: "Catch the NBA Fever."
The league has already partnered with brands including Adidas, Coke and Nike in the country, and its national recreational league's latest season had 6,000 players participate. The Jr. NBA program also locally produced a training DVD that was delivered to 500 schools.
Basketball is now the fastest-growing sport behind soccer among boys and girls, with five million participants, according to the Basketball Federation of India.
Batting back cricket
Engagement among adults is still low, and the NBA is trying to solve that with a TV deal inked late last year to make Sony Six its exclusive broadcast partner, airing live games and original programming. The NBA aired every game of the Eastern and Western conference and the seven-game Finals in India last season.
But can a sport like basketball, which historically has no ties to the South Asian region, ever eclipse the national obsession, cricket? Mr. Colaco argues it can. And perhaps this will help: In May, Vivek Ranadive, founder and CEO of software company Tibco, bought a majority stake in the Sacramento Kings. He is the first Indian majority owner of an NBA team.