NBA’s Big Bet On Basketball Schools To Build A Pipeline For Indian Talent

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 9, 2017

“Grassroots to high performance.” said Yannick Colaco, the managing director of NBA India. “That is our global strategy.”

The NBA on Friday announced the launch of NBA Basketball School, a network of tuition-based basketball development programs around the world open to international male and female players for ages 6-18.

“The NBA Basketball School builds an additional track between the Jr NBA and NBA Academies.” added the vice president of the NBA and the International Basketball Operations & Head of Elite Basketball, Brooks Meek. “The goal is to increase the pool of players who have the talent to attend our academies around the world.”

The first NBA Basketball School was launched on Friday in Mumbai as part of a multi-year agreement announced with India On Track, a sports management, marketing and development company. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months.

Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

How the junior schools help

No Indian has suited up for an NBA team in the regular season till-date. Satnam Singh, the first Indian drafted (by the Dallas Mavericks) to the NBA, has yet to play in the regular season. Currently on the Mavericks D-League team the Texas Legends, Singh’s NBA dream seems even more distant as he suited up for just eight of his team’s 42 games this season.

Like Singh, seven other players (three boys and four girls) headed for the IMG Academies on hefty basketball scholarships in 2010. Unlike Singh, most faded into obscurity. Only Kavita Akula and Barkha Sonkar have done well, and continue to do so. It may seem fair to believe that the IMG experiment failed. But that would ignore the deeper problem with sports development in India: the lack of a structured program for the development of talent in India.

Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

That is what NBA India hopes to address with the programs they have introduced over the past four years. It is the NBA’s vision to create a pipeline for Indians aspiring to become NBA players. Kids get exposed to the game through the in-school Jr NBA Program, can hone their skills at an NBA Basketball School, and eventually graduate to the elite-level NBA Academy.

What about the journey between graduating from an NBA Academy and getting into the NBA?

“When they graduate from an NBA Academy (at about age 18-20), there are multiple opportunities,” Colaco clarified, “be it applying for a scholarship to a college program in the US, seeking to play professionally in Europe or in the D-League, or if they meet all the criteria declaring for the NBA draft. But we would not want to pigeon-hole players, telling them what to get into”

The lack of a committed development approach

Basketball in India is far behind the mainstream sports. Both football and cricket boast established academies and tournaments right from the grassroots up to the elite level. The lack of a committed development approach from the federation has stalled the growth of basketball in India. Conflict at top was a hindrance as recently as six months ago. The dual-faction matter has settled down for now, allowing the appointed federation to step up their activity.

“Our goal is to have our national teams play at the highest level” said an official from the Basketball Federation of India. “This requires a feeder system in which players are coached the right way. The NBA Basketball Schools venture provides the opportunity to get international level coaching to many. This will help basketball in India, both in the short and long term.”

Does having to go up against an established organisation like the NBA hinder any development plans the BFI has? “No.” he says. “We cooperate with the NBA, but our plans are independent and do not overlap. Our vision is to ensure high coaching standards are implemented across India. If anything, the NBA’s efforts help us.”

The balance between development and marketing

Since 2008, the NBA has sought to find a balance between developmental and marketing initiatives. It has constantly been testing the waters to find out what that works. It has started and discontinued activities, tweaked and overhauled initiatives, all in the hopes of finding the right mix that would have the most impact for its brand in India.

“Sure, marketing initiatives help raise awareness about the game,” added the BFI official, “but the last few NBA initiatives have been development focused, which aligns with our vision.”

The NBA sees India both as a pioneer for these programs, and a market to test them for global adoption. Colaco found this position interesting: “India is first off the block in executing the (NBA Basketball Schools) program, which is part of planned network of basketball schools that we will be starting around the world. This is a reflection of how important the Indian market is for the NBA.”

This won’t be the first time the NBA team in India have pioneered a program. Three years ago, the Jr NBA program, the NBA’s decade-old global grassroots initiative, was modified for the first time in India. The old format focused on simple outreach to young kids, while the new format embraced a more defined curriculum structure to be easily implemented during school hours. This change enabled the program to experience unprecedented growth in three years, reaching 1.5 million kids from 2,200 schools in 14 cities, growth that the NBA has not seen across any of its programs globally.

Image credit: NBA India
Image credit: NBA India

Indranil Das Blah, the managing partner at KWAN, India’s leading sports and entertainment agency said, “You cannot build a brand without helping develop the sport organically. That’s where the NBA’s approach to development stands out from most other international organisations in India.”

Blah, whose agency KWAN has worked closely with the NBA on some of its projects, believed the NBA was getting it right. “The NBA has been in India for ten years. They’ve seen, tried, tested adapted to the market. The time is right for these basketball schools”

Colaco added, “With the Jr. NBA Program, we used the learning from previous programs to design a structure that would make a greater impact. It’s clear that we look at the India to a priority market to launch and lead some of our global initiatives”

International sports clubs and organisations with academies in India aren’t a new phenomenon. Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United have all beaten the NBA to the spot. India On Track, the NBA’s partner in the program, also manages the Arsenal Soccer Schools. These schools feature licensed coaches, usually from the clubs’ junior programs. Programs, claimed to be world class, range from one week to a few months. Training sessions happen three times a week and last for about 90 minutes. And how has all this access to world class training worked out?

Not too well.

What NBA India is trying to do differently?

Despite their best efforts, none of the soccer schools have produced a player of note. This is aside from the fact that no player from India has climbed the ranks through the academies to earn a spot on the clubs’ junior teams. Although some of the programs boast of state and national team players, most of them were already at that level upon joining the program. This shortfall in quality has led many to believe that these academies are merely brand building income streams for the clubs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off the largest and one of the highest spending middle classes in the world. But to believe that these academies are the hope of young players and their parents is a bit naive.

“Most of the [sports] schools that have opened up in India, are seeking short term goals over long term growth. They are seeking to be profitable immediately,” said Blah. “It’s a top-down approach that is not sustainable. It’s great to have the big names in football [or other sports] open academies in India. But without a holistic grassroots effort, growth will be a challenge”

Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India
Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India

So what is the NBA doing differently? How do they avoid the same pitfalls?

“It is about crafting a basketball development system and building an entire ecosystem.” Colaco explained. “You can’t have a grassroots program like the Jr. NBA without a next level like NBA Basketball Schools. You can’t have both without an NBA Elite Academy to aspire to. No other (sports schools) program in India has an ecosystem like the one the NBA has built across all ages, level and platforms. That’s where our year-long tuition based program is different. It is the pathway for kids, not the end goal”

Spending on sports has never been a priority for a vast majority of Indian parents. Unlike academics, most don’t see any returns, both immediate and future, to invest in a child’s sporting future. While details on costs haven’t been made public yet, Colaco does not see cost as a stumbling block to price sensitive Indian parents.

Colaco had good news there. “I would like to stress, that while this is tuition based program, we are constantly scouting for the most talented. Our program is not just for people who can afford it. We are in a position to subsidise, or provide training at no cost to talented and deserving players.”

The NBA has laid out the pipeline. Now it will play the waiting game to watch the flow. There is quiet but confident hope among the basketball community that if it all comes together, we will see an Indian player in the NBA or WNBA sooner than later.

Till then, we wait and watch.