Professional Basketball in India : Can Basketball Be the New Cricket?

22 June 2016 by No Comments

Right now, there is only one sport in India and that’s cricket.  It’s a slight exaggeration, but right now, only a slight one.  Although field hockey is the official, national sport and the ubiquitous game of soccer has a presence in India, the country’s real passion has always been cricket.  Now, however, that could be about to change.

Basketball in general and the NBA in particular has long had a niche following in India. After all, in a country of over one billion people, it’s only to be expected that some of them will take an interest in sports other than cricket. The steady expansion of internet facilities and the growth of broadband, has helped to generate even more interest in sports which have not traditionally been widely followed in India, thanks to video-streaming services such as YouTube, which have allowed Indian audiences to see sports which were, hitherto, largely ignored by the Indian domestic media, essentially due to their lack of a local following. This, in turn, encourages local networks to increase their coverage of these sports and attracts more followers.

Over recent years, the NBA has made a significant effort to reach out to Indian audiences, since the country offers a huge and, as yet largely untapped, potential market.

Three key events have happened to add impetus to their campaign.

First of all, in 2010, the global marketing giant IMG joined forces with India’s huge Reliance Industries to create IMG Reliance, a company dedicated to sports and entertainment, which was eager to build on India’s love of sport and, in particular, to reach out to the young-adult market.  Marketing companies have long understood the importance of having role-models for young people to copy and so IMG Reliance’s first step was to partner up with the Basketball Federation of India.  This agreement made it possible for promising, young Indian athletes to attend the IMG Academy in Florida, thereby laying the foundation for India’s sporting role-models of the future.

Then, in 2014, Simran “Sim” Bhullar entered into the NBA, joining the Sacremento Kings.  As his name suggests, Bhullar is of Indian heritage, but he was born and raised in Canada, a country in which basketball is an established, popular sport. Going through the Canadian education system, Bhullar was able to take full advantage of the facilities it offered for developing his skills and of the well-established network of talent scouts who looked with players who had the potential to reach the NBA. Bhullar’s Indian heritage made him of particular interest to sponsors eager to find sports personalities to whom Indian audiences could relate. This may have been a part of the reason why he was signed to the Sacremento Kings even though he missed out on a place in the official NBA draft.

A year later Satnam Singh Bhamara was also drafted into the NBA, this time into the Dallas Mavericks.  This event was a major news story in India, not only because Bhamara became the first Indian-born player to be drafted into the NBA, but because he achieved a number of other firsts as well.  In addition to his undoubted sporting abilities, Bhamara is a personable young man to whom it is easy for other young Indian people to relate.

This last point is important according to Betfair, since sporting role-models can help to encourage children and young adults to participate actively in a sport themselves. This builds both the next generation of sports-people and the next generation of sporting audiences. Basketball coaching has been available in India for several decades, but it was always a niche activity, often associated with children who attended élite schools. Now efforts are being made to take the sport out to ordinary children and make it a part of everyday life as it is in other countries.

It’s probably no coincidence that Satnam Singh Bhamara is a boy from the Punjab, since Punjab is increasingly recognized as the centre of basketball in India, having won no less than four Arjuna Awards in relation to its efforts to develop the sport. It is home to the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, which has produced many young talents who have gone on to join India’s national basketball teams (both junior and senior). It was also the birthplace of Subhash Mahajan who went on to found the Sampoorna Basketball School in Karnakata, which has the explicit aim of developing grass-roots support for basketball, particularly among rural children. Founded in 2005, the school is now receiving international attention and has received visits from distinguished guest coaches, including Troy Justice of the NBA.

Little by little, this exciting project is expanding, opening new centres and introducing new young people to the joys of basketball.