Two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Shay Goldenberg started roaming around Quicken Loans Arena to scout spots for a live shot near the crowded floor. There were no producers or photographers to help him — he needed only to whip out his Zoom Q2n camcorder and custom-made microphone. As the only Israeli reporting inside the arena, he knew an audience 6,000 miles away back home would be watching.
“A lot of fans are waking up in the middle of the night,” said Goldenberg, who lives in Akron, Ohio, as an emissary working for a Jewish nonprofit group. “I am bringing them an angle different than what they can see on TV.”
Goldenberg writes regularly about the NBA for a Hebrew-language basketball site. His fans paid for his flights to cover the first two games of the Finals in Oakland.
“For me, it’s the cherry on top,” he joked.
About 20 feet away, Boom Gonzales, a sportscaster from Filipino TV network ABS-CBN, was flipping through his detailed notes while preparing for a 7 a.m. preview show for millions of basketball fans in Manila and the nation’s more than 7,000 islands. Jacques Monclar, a former French basketball player and coach who is now an NBA analyst for global broadcast network beIN SPORTS, carefully watched an intense Cavs half-court scrimmage nearby. He would be doing live commentary during the game.
On the baseline, Lisa Hsu, a veteran NBA reporter from China’s online media company Tencent (an ESPN partner), wrapped up an interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“It’s a big court here,” Hsu said. “But with more and more international media outlets here every year, it’s becoming smaller and smaller.”
As the NBA’s reach continues to grow around the world, the media covering it have grown considerably, too. They are diverse and multicultural, reflecting the global fan base that depends on it for access, analysis and action. Almost as foreign emissaries, they feel an obligation to deliver NBA games, news and information to legions of fans, most of whom will never see an NBA game live. That might seem like a weighty responsibility, but as the success of the NBA Finals illustrates, the international media is game.
The path to globalization
The growth of the NBA Finals into a global event was evidenced by the vast international media representation at the Finals, which included 265 journalists from 35 countries.
In China, for example, it was the most-viewed Finals series ever on the country’s digital platforms. Overall, Tencent’s live game coverage received 190.9 million total views and averaged 12.2 million unique viewers per game, up 30 percent from 2016. Game 5 of the Finals was the most-viewed NBA game ever, with 50.6 million total views and 15.9 million unique viewers, surpassing last year’s Game 7, according to Tencent.
On television, it was the most-watched NBA Finals series since 1998, according to Nielsen (U.S. domestic numbers). The 2017 championship series averaged 20.4 million total viewers, up from 20.2 million viewers for last season’s seven-game series. This year’s Finals also averaged an additional 434,000 digital streaming viewers, according to ESPN, which produces ABC’s NBA telecasts.
Game 5 averaged 24.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Game 5 since 1998, and an additional 537,000 streaming viewers.
Of course, the star power on display in Warriors-Cavs was a huge factor in attracting an audience that spanned 215 countries and territories in 49 languages.
“There’s 11 current or former All-Stars, and seven of the last eight MVP winners are on the court between LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said. “They’ve created global superstars. And people have an incredible amount of interest and desire to watch them play at the highest level.”
At the core of the NBA’s decadeslong globalization is the league’s success in allowing international journalists to be the voice of the game and produce localized stories suited for their fans across different global markets.
“When I started covering the NBA nearly 30 years ago, there weren’t many [international media] at all,” said Yoko Miyaji, a Los Angeles-based Japanese NBA writer.
Miyaji has been to the Finals every year since 1992, when she started to witness a steady influx of global media presence after the original Dream Team dominated the 1992 Olympics.
“It makes a very big difference for us to be here,” said Guillermo Schutz, a sportscaster for Mexican broadcaster Televisa. “In Mexico, it’s very important to have people you know and you can connect with to understand a sport.”
While international fans have a special connection with players from their home countries, that’s becoming less important for overall interest. Everaldo Marques, a sportscaster for ESPN Brasil, said that viewership is significantly up in the country compared with last year, even without Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa representing the nation. The Warriors’ popularity in Manu Ginobili‘s home of Argentina is another example.
“If Golden State has made inroads in Ginobili’s country, it tells you how it’s growing and how it’s becoming sophisticated,” said Alvaro Martin, a commentator for ESPN Deportes.
What’s next? According to Tatum, the NBA is looking to India as the next China. The NBA Finals were broadcast in Hindi for the first time ever. Technology will be a primary factor in the NBA Finals’ continued growth.
“What we had to do is to produce the games now in a way for consumers to optimize for their mobile devices,” Tatum said. “So we have different camera angles where we zoom in closer so that we’re able to create a better experience for those consumers who were watching our games on their mobile device and on their laptops and other streaming devices.”
To better serve broadcasters across different regions, 59 high-frame-rate cameras allowing super slow motion replays were used in the game broadcast, allowing for international programming uninterrupted by domestic commercial breaks.
Srinivasan Ramani, a journalist with the newspaper The Hindu, said the league is on the right path.
“Basketball will become popular if poor people, people living in shanty towns, have the chance to play the game and realize it’s a democratic sport,” Ramani said. “Basketball is not a costly sport — anyone can play it as long as they have a ball and a hoop.
“It’s very important for India to catch up with the second popular sport in the world and embrace it as one of its own. It’s necessary for Indian press like us to break down the process that enables the NBA players to do what they are doing and humanize it in a way that Indians can understand and learn from it.”