The commissioner of the National Basketball Association oversees a product that practically sells itself, he admits. In 1995, 18 million people flocked to NBA games stateside, resulting in 92% occupancy. Internationally, games air in more than 550 million households in 175 countries and 40 languages.
"We have brand equity from the start," he said.
Once the step-child of American professional sports-Mr. Stern visited the National Football League to learn how that sports league marketed its brand-the NBA is now the model of how to grow a global machine.
It has even surpassed its NFL mentor, which floundered when it tried to start the World League of American Football overseas, said David Jacobson, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, Chicago. International Events Group does events marketing research.
"The NBA doesn't have an analygous blemish on its record," he said. "You'd have to characterize it as a bigger success than any major league sports league."
Behind that growth is former attorney Stern. Since becoming commissioner in 1984, he has added six new franchises and made the NBA a global brand.
In merchandising alone, the numbers are impressive. In 1987, the NBA sold $10 million worth of products outside the U.S.; in 1995, $400 million.
Though basketball is American born, the most striking growth comes from around the globe-bringing fans and corporate sponsors along for the ride. The New York-based sports league has regional management and sales offices in Miami, Mexico City, Toronto, Geneva, Paris, Melbourne, Hong Kong and in Tokyo, where every other November since 1992 the NBA holds its regular season opening game. The NBA takes a localized branding approach to what is becoming a global icon.
"We're not about attaching ourselves to global sponsors," he said. "We're going to market on a local basis, dealing with local tastes and local sponsors."
Bimbo bread company starts local in-store promotions with the NBA in Mexico in May. Kellogg Co. does local NBA promotions in Europe and Asia, and the NBA works with Qantas in Australia.
Since the high-profile "Dream Team" in Barcelona's 1992 Olympic Games, NBA players shoot baskets in European cities in the "Converse/NBA 3-on-3 Tour" and the McDonald's Championship tournament. In some markets, the NBA literally builds the sport; in China, it works with Nike to construct basketball courts.
Nowhere is the game stronger than on television. ESPN and other channels carry live games in Latin America and Asia and direct-to-home broadcasts open up new prospects.
Last October, MTV Latino tied in with "NBA Jams de MTV," a two-hour special, which hit more than 5 million homes pan-regionally on the youth-oriented, Spanish-language music channel. In a region known best for futbol or soccer, the NBA captures the attention of boys and girls 12 to 17 years old, according to research conducted by Coca-Cola Company's Sprite brand in the region.
The youth market is targeted with weekly TV shows in Japan, Mexico and China, and its newest project, "NBA Dunk Street," debuted in Canada this month.
"This business travels internationally as well as any other," Mr. Stern told attendees in Miami at last month's Marketing 2020 Advertising Summit of the Americas, sponsored by Advertising Age International and the International Advertising Association. Future sights are set on India and Eastern Europe, he said.
Nowhere is the brand more successful than in Latin America, where it has 1,900 trademark applications and will launch home videos and video-games this year.
Marketing support for domestic and global initiatives, including the "I Love This Game" campaign for games and "I Love This Stuff" for consumer products, is handled in-house, after consulting from Andy Berlin and Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis. International work is done in-house.
The NBA's competition is indigenous sports in markets like the U.K., where cricket and soccer are entrenched, said David Gardiner, VP-marketing/productions with Sports Productions, Winchester, Va., which promotes NBA pre-season games.
"Basketball can fit in there, but it will take a lot more work and unique marketing style," he said. "What the NBA can feed off of is that those fans are crazy and it's part of their lives. If basketball can tap into that, it will become another outlet."