The topic of the NBA’s possible expansion into Europe has been around for decades. Former Commissioner David Stern was discussing the idea of NBA franchises on the continent as far back as the late 1980s, when NBA teams began competing in the McDonald’s Open, later called the McDonald’s Championship until it ended after the 1999 event.
Around the turn of the century, Stern boldly predicted the NBA would expand to Europe within 10 years, a prediction he reiterated in 2010 after his first claim turned out to be premature.
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“It’s a wonderful topic, because 10 years ago, I said, ‘Oh, it’s inevitable, it’ll happen in 10 years,’” Stern said in October 2010. “And now what I’m saying is, ‘It’s inevitable, it’ll happen in 10 years.’
“But in terms of globalization, we’re going to see a desire for franchises in Europe—and in about 10 years, you’ll send me a postcard.”
The first (pardon the pun) real interest from a European club has emerged.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez told ABC.es earlier this week that he wants his team to play in the NBA.
Real Madrid won the unofficial Triple Crown of Spanish basketball in 2014-15, winning the Spain’s top-tier league, the Liga ACB, along with the Copa del Rey and the Euroleague title.
It was the record 32nd Liga ACB championship for Real, the record 25th Copa del Rey title (they were tied with FC Barcelona with 23 until winning each of the last two years) and their nine Euroleague championships is three more than any other club (Maccabi Tel Aviv, CSKA Moscow and Greece’s Panathinaikos each have six titles).
The rough translation of Perez’ comments to ABC.es indicate the Real president will talk to Commissioner Adam Silver when the Boston Celtics face Real Madrid in early October at Madrid’s Barclaycard Center (encouraging sign for NBA expansion—the European arenas are starting to sound just like U.S. venues).
“I would love that Real Madrid play in the NBA,” Perez said (translation by Google). “Now comes the commissioner and (I will) try to talk to him.”
Commentators couldn’t wait to start bashing the idea. NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin wrote:
He can go ahead and present his proposal. I’m going to go ahead and present my wife with a proposal about buying me a Ferrari. These two have the same chances of success.
If we’re talking about Real as a single entry into the NBA, Helin is right—there’s not a chance.
Silver said in January, when the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks were in London for what has become an annual NBA event at London’s O2 Arena, there would have to be multiple European entries for an expansion by the NBA to make sense.
Silver compared what the NBA would have to do with the continued inroads the National Football League is making in England.
“My sense is that the NFL is a little bit ahead of us in terms of their timeline for having a franchise based in London,” Silver said, via The Guardian, in January. “There are some aspects of their schedule that make it easier—they play once a week, they have fewer games.
“It will be easier logistically for them to pull it off. It would be difficult for us to have one team in Europe. We’d have to put both feet down. That would mean having four franchises in Europe.”
Infrastructure is one impediment, but there are NBA-style arenas in place or under construction in England, Germany, France and Spain.
There are questions aplenty about how an NBA expansion into Europe could work. Scheduling is obviously a key issue, although the nightmare scenario many opposed to the idea point out is just stupid—the NBA would not schedule a team to play a back-to-back in Berlin on a Friday night and Denver on a Saturday night.
But that’s how people opposed to an idea work—they come up with all sorts of straw man arguments (made-up scenarios that would never actually happen) to scare people into their line of thinking.
That’s not to say there aren’t scenarios that would present major challenges—scheduling a playoff series involving a North American-based team against a European team would be tremendously difficult because the time frame of the series would have to be expanded to allow for travel and jet lag adjustments.
And, at least five years ago, there was at least one player—a European native—who was vehemently against the idea of the NBA invading Europe.
“That’s impossible, in my opinion, that’s impossible” said Marcin Gortat, a backup center for the Orlando Magic at the time. “That’s just too much travel. I would just want it to stay the way it is right now. And if we have to, just maybe expand from Canada.”
Gortat also had some more inflammatory comments, accusing Stern of wanting to “control the whole world” and that European expansion could somehow hurt the NBA’s standing as “the best league on Earth.”
Let’s not forget this is not a new discussion. Here are comments from two general managers about the prospect of the NBA in Europe.
“It’s a natural,” said one general manager. “The league already is making great strides overseas, where we are very popular. It’s the next big market. The travel will not be that big a deal. It seems like we’re always finding ways to make trips shorter these days.”
The other general manager said: “I could see our champion playing against a European champion for a true world championship. As basketball improves around the world, it really is a misnomer to call the (NBA champion) ‘world champions’ when there may be a (European) team … that might be able to beat them.”
So, no, this is not a new debate.
And it’s not one that’s going to go away. If Perez can find three or four other European clubs that want to make the leap like he wants to with Real Madrid, the idea of European expansion might suddenly find itself cooking with gas.