Slam dunk! Inside the NBA’s Basketball Africa League

In May the NBA defied the threat of Covid-19 to host its first ever tournament outside the US. Does it represent a watershed for basketball in Africa and the continent’s sports business industry?



On a late May evening in the cavernous Kigali Arena in Rwanda, the players of Egypt’s Zamalek SC triumphantly lifted a newly minted golden trophy confirming them as champions of the inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL).  

Showered with sparkling confetti, the players celebrated their 76-63 win over Tunisian rivals US Monastir. After years of planning, the BAL – a joint venture between the US-based National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), had successfully concluded its first season. After a build-up marred by Covid-19, the completion of one of the highest-profile new sporting events on the continent was no small feat. 

From courtside invites to French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to games broadcast globally and partnerships with international brands, the NBA staked its hard-won credibility on launching a successful and thrilling tournament capable of attracting a new fanbase and building on a decade’s worth of African development efforts.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speak during a Basketball Africa League (BAL) match in the Kigali Arena.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame at a Basketball Africa League (BAL) match in the Kigali Arena on May 27, 2021. (Photo: Ludovic MARIN / various sources / AFP)

While crowds were necessarily sparse due to Covid, the NBA scattered celebrity stardust over proceedings with appearances by US-rapper J. Cole – who played three games for the Rwanda Patriots – and a live performance by Rwandan musician Bruce Melodie.

The NBA also supported the league in more prosaic ways, from its experience with training match officials to its reach with commercial and media partners. Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa, says that under the circumstances, the first BAL was a success. 

“We’re very happy with how it went. It took a lot of work to launch this inaugural season in the middle of Covid, and when we measure the elements of success, health and safety was number one. The fact that we came through with no players contracting Covid-19 was a powerful testament to the protocols we put in place and the rigour with which we executed them.

“Getting worldwide distribution and making the games available to more than 1bn viewers around the world was testament to the success of our outreach and the willingness of media partners to take up and show the tournament.” 

After postponing the BAL, originally scheduled to start in March 2020 in Dakar, Senegal, organisers decided to host an adjusted competition entirely at the Kigali Arena. Prior to the tournament, all players had to quarantine before individual and group practice. All arrivals in Rwanda had to submit a negative PCR test and be tested on arrival.

Learning from the NBA’s US experience, the 12 teams entered a strict bubble in which they were tested daily as the tournament progressed from a group stage to the quarters, semis and final. Given all the challenges, watching Zamalek celebrate was a thrilling moment, says BAL’s president, Amadou Gallo Fall.   

“There were lots of challenges because we had to move over 500 people of 52 nationalities in the bubble, from our teams from all 12 countries to the different vendors and partners we had to get to Kigali. Thinking about flights, restrictions, the Covid protocols you had to navigate, the challenge was enormous, but this makes the outcome even more rewarding to have pulled it off.” 

A decade in the making 

While the organisers’ immediate focus may have been on thwarting Covid-19, the launch of the BAL is an acceleration of an NBA push into Africa a decade in the making. 

The league opened its first African headquarters in Johannesburg in 2010, and hosted two sold-out exhibition games featuring NBA players in the city in 2015 and 2017, and one in Pretoria in 2018.

Africa’s influence on the NBA is increasing – a record-tying 14 African players were on the opening-night rosters of NBA franchises for the 2020-21 season, including Cameroonian superstar Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. By 2020, the organisation’s Basketball Without Borders programme, launched in 2003, had steered 10 African-developed players towards the NBA draft. 

The BAL aims to capitalise on its new African stars by feeding Africa’s growing appetite for sports content as young consumers increase their leisure spend and gain access to TVs and smartphones.

The sports industry in Africa is expected to grow 6.6% over the three to five years from 2020, according to a PwC survey of sports industry leaders, after growing 8.5% in the last cycle. Some 66.4% of respondents ranked basketball’s potential to grow global revenues as above average or very high, second only to football/soccer at 73.6%.  

The NBA hopes that its commercial draw in the US – the league made a record $1.46bn in sponsorship revenue in its 2020-21 season, according to sports consultants IEG, and typically earns total revenues of over $8bn a year – can be replicated in emerging markets as viewers warm to its mix of sport, fashion and music.

Broadcast strategy gains wide audience

The BAL’s strategy targeted a wide audience through African and global broadcast partnerships. Canal+ and ESPN aired games across Francophone and Anglophone Africa, while VOA broadcast across its multi-language radio network. The beIN Media Group aired games in Arabic in the Middle East and North Africa, ESPN gained US rights, and Tencent Video broadcast in China.

Williams says that the reach can be boosted in future by deals with mobile networks.  

“We were very pleased with distribution, there was a great mix of free-to-air, pay TV, as well as digital streaming. To get Tencent in China to stream was a great coup, and demonstrated the widespread interest in African basketball. We’ll continue as part of the development of the NBA business on the continent to find ways to make our content more immediately accessible to fans on mobile devices. Going forward our goal would be for NBA and BAL games to be available for streaming on packages that fans can sign up on their phones.” 

The broadcast strategy was a key plank in the ambition of attracting African sponsors. While the BAL’s initial deals are unlikely to command the values set by the NBA’s US partnerships – IEG says that US tech, gaming, telco companies and banks pay more than $100m annually for NBA sponsorships – Fall says that the BAL’s promising commercial start includes partnerships with 10 diverse African and international firms. 

“We had the likes of Flutterwave, which is emerging as a major player in the fintech space in Africa… We had Social Nation Africa, a new platform committed to showcasing African lifestyles, the tremendous culture of music and fashion and all these elements we are positioning the BAL to showcase. New Fortress Energy, a leader in the clean energy space that has Africa as a major operating ground, was one of our lead sponsors. The Rwanda Development Board is an African brand which really embraced our league as a foundational partner.” 

In a bid to deepen commercial opportunities with the African business community, the NBA formed NBA Africa, a new entity led by Victor Williams and partly sold to African private investors. The partners include a consortium led by Babatunde Folawiyo, chairman and CEO of Yinka Folawiyo Group, and Helios Fairfax Partners Corporation (HFP), led by Tope Lawani, co-CEO of HFP and co-founder and managing partner of Helios Investment Partners.  

“Much more important than the financial support they’ve bought in as part of the transaction is the knowledge and relationships and expertise they have in growing businesses on the continent, which we’ll draw on to accelerate the growth plans the NBA has,” says Williams.

In late July, NBA Africa scored a significant coup when it announced that former US President Barack Obama has joined as a strategic partner and minority equity investor to boost its social responsibility efforts across Africa. 

Basketball players vie for the ball.
NBA players Kyle Lowry (C-R) from the Memphis Grizzlies and Andre Drummand from the Detroit Pistons vie for the ball during the basketball match between Team World and Team Africa on August 5, 2017 in Johannesburg. (Photo: MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP)

Seismic event or gradual evolution?  

On 11 July, the Nigerian international team, D’Tigers,  sent shockwaves through the basketball world by defeating the USA 90-87 in an exhibition match ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games.  

The game marked the first time the US, who fielded stars including Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, had been defeated by a team from Africa. While condescending US pundits were likely to see the game as a one-off embarrassment for the “Dream Team”, NBA Africa’s Williams says the historic win should be placed in the context of a decade of NBA development work. 

“It’s best to see it not as an event, although it was a seismic event, but as part of an evolution. You see many more players of African heritage playing the game at the higher level which is why Nigeria can fill the team with so much NBA experience. It marked a milestone for African basketball when you compare it with more recent games between Nigeria and the US, but it’s worth looking at as part of the evolution of a broader African basketball ecosystem.” 

Whether a one-off or a sign of things to come, the game provided an auspicious talking point alongside the BAL launch. Having got the first season under its belt under improvised conditions, Fall says that early planning for next year’s BAL will allow viewers to see a fairer reflection of the increasing quality of African basketball.  

“At the end of day we are pro-basketball league so the quality of the product on court is going to be our main focus and I’m confident that the level of play is going to be improved because these teams had a short amount of time to put rosters together and recruit, and the local leagues were not running. Now we know we will have a season two next year, so with more predictability and certainty the product will get better.” 

Bringing back the fans

But if there’s one missing ingredient on which the success, revenues and excitement of the tournament could depend, it’s the return of large numbers of fans to stadia. The organisers hope to host the tournament in multiple locations next year and are desperate to find ways to allow African supporters to experience the unique courtside buzz of the NBA.   

“I think we’ve demonstrated even without fans there was an opportunity to put out a product that was entertaining and people wanted to watch, but we prefer having fans in there and the decision is going to depend on where things are with the pandemic,” says Fall.    

“We’d love to get fans into the building. The world is rapidly evolving in how it deals with Covid as more people get vaccinated on the continent,” says Williams. “As protocols evolve, we hope that will allow us to get fans to watch games live.”

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