What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “basketball?”
Now what about the “Dream Team?”
Whether the Olympics, The European League, or the NBA, basketball worldwide has become recognized as an economic and social force in the lives of average people. There is more than one reason for this growth in popularity, an expansion that has the sport in fierce competition with the internationally accepted game of soccer in many parts of the world.
Just Check the Numbers
What are we really talking about when we say “growth” of popularity? If numbers do not lie, then the sport of basketball is growing at a phenomenal pace. When including a country such as China, which contains more than one-third of the word’s population, and one-third of their population has embraced the game of basketball, then “growth” may be an understatement.
Once upon a time, there were two American basketball leagues, the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). During this time, basketball lagged far behind football and baseball as America’s choice of sport to watch, either on television or in person. There were discussions and attempts during the 1970’s to merge the two leagues, and finally, in 1976, the teams from the ABA were merged with the NBA.
This merger brought together the best basketball players in the world under one roof. If television is a popularity measurement, the viewing of the finals championship in 1976 posted a 12.3 Nielsen rating, which translates into an estimated 12.3 percent of American households were tuned in to watching the game or roughly 26 million people.
Across the Sea
The next major step towards popularity took on an international flavor. Enter the 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team. The players from the United States were more than an assembly of the world’s greatest players. They were international ambassadors of a sport that, for the first time in Olympic history, allowed professional players to participate in the games. The part basketball-competitor- mostly-celebrity players were sought after by many opposing teams for pictures and autographs, despite teams losing by an average of 44 points in these Olympic games.
But more than celebrity status spurred the popularity of the game. More than a few team owners and scouts noticed the emergence of some very talented European players, among them, Arvydas Sabonis of Lithuania, Dražen Petrović of Croatia, and Detlef Schrempf of Germany.
What are the factors that have caused this spurt of popularity? One is economics, as the equipment required to play the game is both cheap and therefore appeals to social and economic groups of all types.
Another is the expanded inclusion of women into the hardcourt arena. While the numbers for the women’s NBA TV ratings pale in comparison to the men’s, when young women see another avenue in which they can participate and showcase their athletic skills, there will be more to follow. Very recently, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise gave serious consideration to drafting college sensation Britney Grimes as the NBA’s first woman player to be drafted.
A third factor is the faster paced game speed of basketball, which has been assisted by the faster, quicker, and more athletic players who currently play the game.
The technology factor is enormous in the 21st century, as social media connections such as Facebook and Twitter popularize the game with the younger generation.
So what are the places where the most recent growth of popularity of basketball exist in the world?
With a population of roughly 1.8 billion people, the signing of Yao Ming to the Houston Rockets marked a turning point in Chinese basketball popularity. Now, more than 300 million Chinese watch or participate in basketball yearly. This growth is expected to increase as more Chinese players are signed by the NBA and NBA players travel to China to play in Chinese professional leagues. There are plans to build a basketball court in every rural village in China to accommodate its growing popularity.
Canada is mentioned here to offset the idea that popularity is strictly measured by large numbers. Since the inception of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise in 1995, basketball has become one of the top three team sports in Canada. This growth in popularity has its grass roots in children ages 5-14, posting an increase of 37 percent between 1998-2005, and is the fastest growing and most popular sport amongst visible minorities. This statistic reflects the important inclusion of all races globally.
The European Leagues have been well established for several decades now, and it was natural that the major shift in popularity would occur in the Eastern part of the world. Yes, basketball popularity is growing, and the expansion of the NBA by creating teams in Western Europe has been planned for years. When it happens, it will be another stepping stone for international popularity and participation.