MEXICO CITY – Ask Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman about flying 1,800 miles to play San Antonio in a “home” game in Mexico City and he’ll strike a pose of a man mystified.
But he knows better: He was there at the beginning.
Adelman was a Portland assistant coach in 1986 when the Trail Blazers drafted Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic, a pair of European prodigies whose existence until then had been personally verified by NBA aficionados only with grainy video highlight reels or a fleeting Olympic appearance.
Nearly 30 years later, the NBA is surfing a wave of globalization that sells jerseys and television rights worldwide and has lifted the league’s talent and skill. A record 92 international players from 39 countries and territories made rosters when this season started; 17 of them will play Wednesday night at the year-old Mexico City Arena when the Spurs and Wolves meet so far away from home in what the league calls NBA Global Games Mexico City 2013.
The Spurs have 10 such players (a record itself) and the Wolves have seven after adding Cameroon’s Luc Mbah a Moute in last week’s trade of Derrick Williams.
“You knew there were good players over there,” Adelman said, referring to somewhere across the sea and a time long ago, “but I never expected the game to change the way it has. You’re seeing guys coming over here, and large groups of guys. Still, that’s no reason to go to Mexico City.”
Adelman is reluctant to give up Target Center’s home-court advantage for one night and compound a hectic November schedule by flying so far south for a game that could have playoffs implications come April.
The NBA believes there is good reason for it, expanding yearly the number of preseason games — and now regular-season games — its teams play outside U.S. borders. When Atlanta and Brooklyn play in London next month, NBA teams will have played 148 games in countries outside the United States and Canada since 1978. Eight teams played overseas this preseason, including the first games held in Brazil and the Philippines.
A natural fan base
The league began discussing a Mexico City regular-season game with Wolves officials a year ago, partly because the team has Spanish-speaking Ricky Rubio from Spain and J.J Barea from Puerto Rico among its seven international players.
The Wolves — Adelman notwithstanding, of course — were willing because the NBA is paying it at least the equivalent of a Target Center game’s gate receipts and because owner Glen Taylor calls it “the responsibility of being an owner and doing your part” for a league that’s a $5 billion-plus business.
The NBA was just expanding its audience worldwide when Taylor bought the Wolves in 1994. The fall of communism across Eastern Europe five years earlier introduced a first wave of players — Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac among them — to the league and vice versa. The inclusion of pro athletes — and the rock-star show that become the U.S. “Dream Team” — at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics hinted at the financial possibilities hawking merchandise and celebrity around the league. That same year, 21 international players worked in the league.
When Houston drafted Chinese center Yao Ming first overall a decade later, a whole new world — and about a billion-plus new fans/consumers — opened.
The NBA operates offices in Europe, Latin America and Asia, including two Chinese offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Taylor has served on the NBA China board since its inception and calls the number of people watching league games on their smartphones and targeted through social media “amazing.”
He also calls worldwide revenues a “relatively small amount” of the NBA’s massive pie — “not a significant part, yet” — but also terms it the league’s fastest-growing revenues.
So the league reaches out to the Latin America market by bringing Rubio, Barea and Spurs guard Manu Ginobili to Mexico City for a regular-season game, just as it sent Houston and former sensation Jeremy Lin back to his Taiwanese ancestry during October’s preseason.
Taylor said it’s simply smart to capitalize on a growing international game that Adelman believes produces through discipline and fundamentals more skilled, matured team players at younger ages now than an American AAU feeder system that emphasizes individuals and a superstar mentality.
“To us, that’s just good business,” Taylor said, mentioning growing worldwide TV rights and international corporate sponsorships to name just two. “We get paid back in several ways.”
Growing the market
As the game grows with more players playing, so grows the spectating audience. NBA games and programs are available in 215 countries in 47 languages. More than 30 percent of league merchandise sales come from outside the U.S., and NBA.com last season set a record with 9.6 billion page views and 5.6 billion video streams. More than half of NBA.com visitors come from outside North America, the league says.
Wednesday’s game — expected to be a sellout by game time — will be the 21st NBA game played in Mexico, most of any country outside the United States and Canada. The first preseason game was played in Mexico City in 1992. The only other regular-season game played there was in 1997. Houston played Dallas both times.
NBA Vice President Latin America Philippe Moggio calls Mexico “a priority market” the league is targeting through specific Facebook, Twitter and other social-media feeds aimed at a country where, like so many others throughout the world, soccer is king.
“We’re not competing against soccer specifically,” Moggio said. “There’s a lot of room for a No. 2 sport. We want to claim that spot clearly.”
Barea represented the NBA in Mexico City last year at the finals of a school tournament that brought together winners from five regions in the country.
“They love the NBA and basketball is growing there,” Barea said. “It’s a big place: a lot of traffic, a lot of people, but a lot of the fans of the NBA. It’s going to be crazy. If it was an away game for us, it’d be even better. But it’s all right, it’s just one game, a good change. I know a bunch of our guys have never been there before, so it’ll be fun.”
Just try telling that to Adelman, though …
“It is what it is,” Adelman said. “There are a lot of reasons why we’re going there. San Antonio is going to do the same thing. We just have to accept it. You’ve got to look at it as an experience and a challenge. It’s all you can do. Where we are right now, every night is a challenge to get a road win. If we get that one there, I’ll count it as a road win.”