With Africa's youth demographic providing a huge potential source of both fans and players for professional basketball, the US's National Basketball Association (NBA) has ambitious plans for expansion across the continent.
With less than a second remaining in the final game of the precariously balanced NBA play-offs, the Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard stormed down the touchline and unleashed an arcing shot towards the hoop. As the game-ending buzzer sounded, the ball bounced four times on the rim before rolling in, sparking joyous pandemonium among the home supporters and a 4-3 series win for the Raptors. For Joel Embiid, the 2.13-metre-tall Cameroonian centre for the defeated Philadelphia 76ers, the 92-90 defeat was hard to take.
The Yaounde-born star wept as he pondered how his bid to qualify for the NBA Conference finals had been thwarted by millimetres. But for the NBA's executives--including the Raptors' Nigerian president Masai Ujiri--Leonard's "movie moment" was a perfect snapshot of heart-stopping drama that will help to sell basketball far beyond its US stronghold.
As the NBA renews its multi-million dollar push into the African sports market--launching a new league on the continent, hosting US teams in flagship South African fixtures and setting up training academies and youth programmes--local stars such as Embiid offer an unparalleled opportunity to win over new fans and boost the commercial potential of the brand.
"Some of the best players in the NBA have come from Africa. They've all had an influence and made their mark, contributed to the franchise and won championships," says Amadou Gallo Fall, vice-president and managing director of NBA Africa and newly announced president of the Basketball Africa League.
"There is tremendous opportunity for basketball development on the continent. Not just from a talent development standpoint but also to grow the NBA business. There's a potential to grow the fan base because there's over 1bn people, a vast majority being made up of the youth demographic. We are a youth brand--this is an exciting place for us to be."
At the heart of the plans to win over the continent is the Basketball Africa League, which the NBA is launching in conjunction with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in January 2020.
Twelve professional teams from across the continent will vie for supremacy. Six teams will come from Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco--countries with a strong...