The NBA’s plans for bringing professional basketball to Africa on a permanent basis just got a little bit closer to reality.
On Tuesday, the league announced the inaugural seven cities that will play host when the Basketball Africa League, or ‘BAL’, tips off in March 2020. Other details about the league were shared in the release, including a major partnership with Nike and Jordan Brand to exclusively outfit the 12 teams with practice and game equipment.
According to the release, the teams will play in the cities of Cairo (Egypt), Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Rabat (Morocco) and Either Monastir or Tunis (Tunisia) during the regular season while a BAL Final Four and BAL Final are expected to take place in Kigali, Rwanda.
The league first hinted to officially expand overseas back in February at NBA All-Star Weekend, when commissioner Adam Silver made an announcement at NBA Africa’s annual luncheon. With host cities and major sponsorships set in stone and an A-list of current and former players, actors and politicians on board, plans are moving along full steam ahead.
The BAL rollout couldn’t come at a more opportune time. For years, the NBA has aggressively pursued expanding its international footprint by heavily investing in programs such as Basketball Without Borders while exploring blueprints for one day putting a franchise in Mexico City. This year’s NBA Summer League featured participation from the Chinese and Croatian national teams and 2019-20 will feature the first regular season NBA game to be played in Paris.
The league is capitalizing on its surging worldwide popularity, coinciding with the Toronto Raptor’s Finals victory in June – the first championship ever claimed outside the United States’ borders.
In and of itself, the Raptors are a microcosm of the global game basketball has become. Not only has Toronto, a self-touted international city, become known for their adopted passion for the sport, but achieved success with a roster made up of players from seven different countries. To boot, the team’s president of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri, is a Nigerian native himself.
As a league, the NBA featured 108 players from 42 different countries on opening day rosters prior to the 2018-19 season. It was the fifth-consecutive year that began with 100 or more international players, with at least one on each of the 30 rosters. Of the 108 players, 13 were African natives.
That means that roughly 22% of the NBA is foreign born. While Major League Baseball and the NHL have a higher percentage of foreigners, with roughly 28.5% and 71% of rosters, respectively, the NBA’s 42 unique countries represented blows away the MLB (20), NHL (17) and NFL (19).
While more specific details are still being ironed out, here’s what basketball fans can expect: the six selected cities will feature 12 teams divided into two conferences, with each conference playing in three cities. Thirty regular season games will be played (five games each for the 12 teams) with the top three from each conference advancing to a six-team round-robin that will eventually determine the Final Four.
“Today’s announcements mark another important milestone as we head into what will be a historic first season for the Basketball Africa League,” BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall said in the official release.
“We now have seven great host cities where we will play and our first partnership with a world-class outfitter. We thank our first partners Nike and Jordan Brand for supporting us on this journey and ensuring our teams have the best uniforms and oncourt products.”
Bringing professional basketball to Africa was a prospect fueled not only by the continent’s rabid obsession with the sport and rising representation around the league, but from big-name celebrities as well.
Charlotte Hornets governor Michael Jordan, Hall of Famer and Democratic Republic of the Congo native Dikembe Mutombo, actor Chris Tucker and President Barack Obama are just a few of the names to jump at the opportunity to become involved in the BAL initiative.
“It’s a big celebration,” Mutombo told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, shortly after the All-Star Weekend announcement.
“It is a dream come true for all of us. I was fortunate enough to play this game and dreamed of something like this happening in the continent. Today, we see that. I don’t have to explain the importance of it to myself.”
Despite the NBA’s seemingly all-time high popularity, the league has begun to mull ways to increase the value of the regular season or conference and division championships. Talk about experimenting with in-season tournaments and championships, similar to how European soccer operates, has grown louder. It will certainly be interesting to see if any overlap with another professional basketball league such as the BAL would be considered.
For now, the NBA remains in a league of their own when it comes to innovation and proactive growth. The monetary resources, marketability and fanbase all exist to continue to globalization. If successful, don’t expect the BAL to be a one-hit-wonder.