The NBA is More International Than Ever, But Does That Make it Global?

On opening night, 23 percent of the league's players were born somewhere other than the United States

by Smriti Sinha
Oct 29 2014, 12:00pm

Photo by Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA began its regular season on Tuesday, the league's 30 rosters tallied the most international players in its history—101 players from 37 countries making for a record 23 percent of the league, thus boosting its "we are a global game" claim.

The number of international players has more than doubled in the past decade—in 2001, foreign players made up about 10 percent of league rosters. A stark contrast to the present league, which saw Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, both Canadians, selected as the top picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The 2014 draft stands out in particular as four of the first eight draft picks were international players.

The NBA's international presence has always been largely skewed towards Europe and Canada, which has 12 players in the league this year, the country's highest ever total. France is second with 10 players in the NBA this year; it was tops last year with nine.

The league's various international initiatives—including Basketball Without Borders, Junior NBA, and NBA Jam—to promote itself in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have helped promote the game in those places, but these efforts haven't led to sudden influx of NBA players. (There are only six NBA players this year from African countries.)

China provides the most obvious example of how popularizing the game overseas has failed to produce NBA players. The country, with its population of 1.3 billion, is the NBA's favorite hotbed for marketing abroad. The league first started pumping money there 32 years ago hoping for massive returns in television viewership numbers and a loyal NBA fanbase. Now 300 million people play basketball in the country. It's often said that there are more NBA fans in China than there are people in the United States. But the efforts on the ground have translated into few Chinese players of note besides Yao Ming. Sometimes, the motivation for NBA teams to include international players can be traced back to the buzz those players create, and the publicity generated for the team in the players' home countries.

After Ming's trailblazing success, the Sacramento Kings signed Chinese player Liu Wei in 2004, but cut him after the hype cooled off. The Kings pulled that once again this year with Sim Bhullar, widely marketed as the first player of Indian descent in the league. However, Bhullar's conditioning issues meant the 7'5" center was not likely to get minutes this season, if ever. But The Kings signed him anyway, won press for diversification, launched their website in Hindi—another first for the NBA—and trotted him out in New York for thousands as part of the India Day Parade. "What Yao did for China, we hope that players like Sim will do for India," Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said about tapping India's close to 600 million pay-TV audience.

The Kings have since cut Bhullar. There are no Chinese players on any opening day rosters. The NBA might be international, but it is still a ways away from global.