The National Basketball Association (NBA) has always held a lot of international appeal – one of the league’s charter teams was the Toronto Huskies – but the league’s global profile has never been larger than it is right now. Thanks in part to hosting some of the greatest international players in history, the NBA has become the premier professional basketball league not only in North America, but throughout the world. The league broadcasts games in more than 200 countries and territories in 47 languages, and has offices in cities including Hong Kong, Mumbai, London, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro.
With this kind of global penetration, the NBA enjoys licensing opportunities greater than any of the major North American sports leagues. Senior Vice President of Licensing and Business Affairs Vicky Picca says this is thanks in large part to how relatively easy it is for people anywhere in the world to pick up a ball and imagine themselves as Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant. “I think the success comes down to accessibility, at the end of the day,” she says. “All you need is a ball to play.”
That accessibility has translated into a robust portfolio of high-end licensees around the globe. Picca says the NBA’s current merchandising business consists of more than 300 licensees producing and promoting products sold in more than 100,000 stores in more than 100 countries on six continents. Despite a global footprint that is the envy of most other sports leagues, the NBA is not finished yet. Picca says the league’s embrace of social media and digital technology, combined with the makeup of its fan base and high-quality licensees, will carry the league to even greater success in the years to come. In every respect, the NBA’s licensing and merchandising efforts have serious Hall of Fame credentials.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the NBA’s global profile is the league’s recent focus on establishing e-commerce sites in certain international markets. More than half of the traffic to NBA.com comes from outside the United States, Picca says, and the league is answering the call for more market-specific merchandising through new websites.
For example, China is the NBA’s second-largest market for merchandise, next to the United States. NBA-branded merchandise is sold at more than 30,000 locations throughout China. These include the NBA Home Store operated by Baofeng and focused on non-apparel items, and the NBA corner of Shanghai’s Top Sports II store. The NBA Store operated by Fengbo e-commerce on Tmall, China’s largest business-to-consumer online retail platform, represents the NBA’s e-commerce presence in China. Elsewhere in Asia, partner MK Trend has opened 45 stores selling NBA merchandise in South Korea and plans to expand to 60 stores by September 2013, Picca says.
In September, the NBA launched NBAStore.eu, the league’s online store for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. With 47 official licensees selling products in more than 16,000 locations throughout Europe, the NBA already has a strong presence in those markets, and the new online store launched in partnership with Europe’s leading online sports retailer, Kitbag, looks to strengthen it.
The third international market where the NBA is making digital inroads this year is Latin America. Through its partner NetShoes, the NBA has 15 active licensees providing branded merchandise to more than 3,500 retail locations. The league recently launched LojaNBA.com to focus on selling NBA merchandise in Brazil.
A strong e-commerce presence is important for any brand these days, but in the NBA’s case it’s more than important considering the makeup of the league’s fan base. According to Picca, the NBA has the youngest, most socially active and most tech-savvy fan base of any of the major North American sports leagues. More than 275 million fans follow the NBA between Facebook and Twitter, making strong digital strategies essential for the league. “We’re very focused on the digital platforms,” Picca says. “We have the youngest and most socially active and tech-savvy consumers among major sports.”
Through NBAstore.com, the NBA has the mechanism not only to provide fans with the NBA-branded merchandise they want, but also to provide the league with an accurate snapshot of emerging consumer trends as they develop. For example, when point guard Jeremy Lin began the incredible run of success for the New York Knicks that would come to be known as “Linsanity,” the NBA was able to monitor the demand for jerseys, t-shirts and other merchandise bearing Lin’s name and likeness as it grew. “When something truly wonderful happens on a particular night at any particular game … we see the consumer will look for that product and we have the machinery in place to make sure those products are available,” Picca says.
Picca says the NBA’s licensing office has an entire group of employees devoted to watching for trends on NBAstore.com, as well as another group that watches social media for trending players.
Although the NBA’s superstar players and popular teams certainly do their share of helping to sell merchandise, Picca says the league’s more than 300 licensees also do a great job of producing high-quality products fans want.
“Making sure you find those partners is integral to maintaining the brand,” Picca says. “We look for partners who are as committed and sincere about growing our brand as we are.”
Among the most prominent partnerships is 2K Sports, developer of the highly successful “NBA 2K13” video game. Setting a sales record for the franchise, “NBA 2K13” features a number of improvements over the previous entry in the series, along with a soundtrack personally curated by the game’s executive producer and part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets, Jay-Z. The game has connectivity to apps for mobile devices, allowing players to access their online leagues while away from their home video game consoles.
The NBA’s official on-court apparel provider, Adidas, has been a partner of the league for years and continues to develop and promote new products for the NBA brand. In February 2012, Adidas unveiled the official uniforms and footwear for the 2012 All-Star Game, played in Orlando, Fla. A full range of NBA All-Star apparel, including replica jerseys, warmup gear and t-shirts, was available at retailers nationwide as well as on NBAstore.com. Adidas also has exclusive deals with NBA superstars Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls.
Some of the most successful licenses have come from some unexpected places, Picca says. During last year’s NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the league drew a lot of attention with a line of high-fashion women’s footwear from HERSTAR. The line of high-heeled shoes featured two styles for all 30 NBA teams that included a limited-edition pump made with Middle Eastern crystals. “You never know where the next thing is coming from,” Picca says.