NBA Opening Night is just around the corner, basketball fans. Tune in Friday at seven to watch the Berlin Brewers visit the Chicago Bulls, and again at 10 the next morning for the debut of the Mumbai Racers as they play host to the New York Knicks!
We’re talking about 2068, of course. And NBA road trips to Europe and India aren’t as far-fetched as you may think.
If you’ve ever tuned into a Euroleague game, or even some of the better FIBA matches over the years, you’ve seen how the atmosphere differs from a typical, mid-January NBA game. Noise-makers are clattering, chanting is almost non-stop, and the look and feel is more like a suped-up high school tourney game in the U.S., or, in what is perhaps a more apt comparison, something like a Premier League soccer game.
Now think about this future: Joel Embiid of the Berlin Brewers (sorry Sixers fans — he’s 74 years old in this scenario, anyways) throws down a massive dunk in transition. Jo-el. Jo-el. Jo-el. Embiiiiid the crowd chants in stomping unison. The Process plays to the crowd, and is celebrated throughout Europe for his animated style of play and off-court persona.
Good for basketball? Yup.
It’s no secret that the NBA is growing rapidly in popularity, both in the United States and abroad. Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that expansion is inevitable and cites the talent level as one of the reasons that it’ll take place. The talent pool is expanding, and there needs to be more teams to house said talent.
Why international over domestic expansion, you ask? Well, the league will want to avoid over-saturating the US market, where there are only a handful of remaining cities that are even feasible for an NBA team to inhabit. Plus, the NBA’s current mode of expansion isn’t just about the expansion of franchises, but rather the expansion of the league’s reach and the process of introducing basketball to everyone. Once logistical issues such as travel are figured out, the allure of a dominant, international league that rakes in revenue across five continents will be too much for the league to pass up. Global expansion is less of a possibility than it is an inevitability.
As we beg forgiveness from all of the fantastic cities across the U.S.A. and Canada hoping to one day have a team of their own, let’s take a stab at what the league’s landscape could look like in the year 2068. (Except for you, Seattle. We didn’t forget about you.)
In the Year 2068…
Basketball still looks more or less the same, but the NBA will have expanded from 30 North American clubs to 32, (re)adding the Seattle SuperSonics and finally cashing in on their flirtation with Mexico City. And more importantly, will have expand to 48 total teams across 13 countries.
(Scaling the league and actually getting from 30 to 48 will be tricky when it comes to scheduling, but a few years of wonky, weighted schedules can be done. Trust me, the scheduling of the final product will be smooth … stay tuned, we’ll get there.)
Adding 18 teams in 50 years is aggressive, but it isn’t completely crazy. Remember, two teams were added in 1988, two in 1989, two in 1995, and one in 2004 to bring the league to 30 teams, which is a rate of 7 teams in 16 years. Eighteen overseas teams in 50 years is still only an average of two teams every five to six years. The league could look something like this:
Eastern Conference: 16 teams
Western Conference: 16 teams
International Conference: 16 teams, split between 4 divisions (Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia)
Before getting to the cities we chose as expansion destinations, one last bit of housekeeping: the criteria for city selection won’t be much different from the existing domestic strategy. When the NBA is searching for potential cities abroad, they’ll be looking for cities with a population that can support 41 regular season home games, plus the business infrastructure to support the franchise via sponsorships, merchandise, and ticket sales.
An NBA-ready arena is ideal, but it’s often been the case that a city has an arena built as part of their plan to lure a team to town. As we’ll see with our international candidates, the majority already have arenas that could plausibly be used to house an NBA squad, but there are a handful that will need renovations or a brand-new arena altogether.
The rest of the boxes to be checked are fairly minor in comparison, including competition from other sports in the area to weather and ease of travel, but the biggest items are the myriad economic factors, and that will come through in the cities selected below.
Now, on to the international divisions.
The two biggest cities in Europe are London and Paris, and it would hard to imagine not awarding them teams, so they’re in.
Spain has the third and fourth biggest cities in Europe in Madrid (approx. 6.4 million) and Barcelona (5.4 million), so one of them has to be picked. We’ll go with Madrid. It has a slight edge in venue (the WiZink Center and Vistalegrewere recently reconstructed and are more modern than the arenas in Barcelona), it’s the capital city, and Real Madrid is the winningest team in Euroleague history and most recently home to №3-overall pick and new Dallas Maverick Luka Doncic. But just know that Barcelona wasn’t far behind.
Picking the fourth city was much harder. Focusing only on basketball history and current popularity would lead us to locales such as Lithuania, Serbia, Czech Republic, and so forth. But factoring in economics, arena, and to a lesser degree, travel time, leaves us with the following options for team №4.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Berlin, Germany
- Milan, Italy
- Rome, Italy
Germany has the more impressive list of talent that has played in the NBA, both in terms of quantity and quality: Dirk Nowitzki is indisputably the best native European to play in the league, and he leads the pack. Having a team in his home country only makes sense.
And when it comes to arenas, Germany outclasses the other countries on the list as well. Since it’s likely that the NBA would add a European division sooner rather than later, the current state of facilities matter here more than anywhere else. And in 2018, Italy mostly has smaller, older venues. Amsterdam has the Ziggo Dome, which was built in 2012, but it has only been used for concerts and … korfball. Which is similar to basketball, but, not basketball. Berlin on the other hand, has the Mercedes-Benz Arena, which opened in 2008 and has a capacity of 14,500 for basketball. Add in the fact that Germany has the fastest-growing economy in Europe, and accounts for 28% of the continent’s GDP, and it’s a no-brainer for the NBA to want to plant its flag here. So they get the fourth spot in the European division.
The idea of adding a Euroleague-feel that could permeate the NBA is exciting. Every game played in Europe would have an added bit of intrigue, and the NBA could use some of that genuine in-arena enthusiasm to replace the high frequency of manufactured excitement that stateside NBA fans are all-too-accustomed to seeing.
European Division: London, Paris, Germany, Madrid
The NBA has made major inroads on the continent in recent years, thanks in part to the emergence of NBA mainstays like Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng, Republic of Congo’s Serge Ibaka and Cameroon’s Luc Mbah a Moute, the latter of whom discovered fellow countryman Joel Embiid at a camp.
There are, of course, several legends of the game who are not only African-born but were raised on the continent, including Sudan’s Manute Bol and Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Dikembe Mutombo (DR Congo).
Once the league eventually takes the leap and expands to Africa, there are some great options on the table.
The two shoe-ins for teams are Cairo, Egypt, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In Cairo, The Covered Hall has a capacity of 20,000, and while it was built in 1991, the city no doubt will update or replace it prior to 2060. Cairo hosted AfroBasket last in 1992, but the size of the metropolitan area and the impressive Egyptian economy is certainly enough to support a squad.
Johannesburg was the host of both the 2015 and 2017 NBA Africa Games, which were exhibitions played between Team Africa and Team World, with both teams made up almost entirely of current NBA players. The Ticketpro Dome, which hosted the 2017 edition of the game, opened in 1997 and has a capacity of 20,000. South Africa also has a top-three economy on the continent, and Johannesburg is one of the three or four biggest cities in all of Africa.
The third isn’t as clear of a choice, but a safe bet would be Lagos, Nigeria. It has one of the largest (if not the largest, depending on what measure is used) urban areas in Africa. They also have the biggest economy in Africa, and a strong history as a basketball powerhouse on the African stage, and one would think since we’re in the year 2060 they have built an arena to house international games.
The fourth city is a tougher pick. Senegal is probably the next-most basketball-crazy country on the continent and has produced the second-most NBA players next to only Nigeria. But the capital city of Dakar is only home to a little over a million people, and there isn’t an arena of significance that exists as of 2018. Could one be built? Sure. While the Senegalese economy isn’t booming at the moment, it is fifth on the list of fastest-growing economies in Africa.
Another option would be Tunisia, although there are similar issues when it comes to infrastructure and the size of the economy. They have an arena, Salle Omnisport de Rades, that was built in 2005, renovated in 2015 and seats 12,000. While the arena is in Rades, it is part of the Tunis metropolitan area, which is home to 2.7 million people. Geographically, Tunisia is close to Egypt and Nigeria, which would leave only Johannesburg, South Africa off by itself compared to the rest of the division.
The final city to consider would be Luanda, Angola. By some estimations, it’s a top-five city in all of Africa in terms of the number of people in the immediate geographical area. It’s also home to the Kilamba Arena, a building that just opened in 2013 and seats 12,500. However, 53% of Luandans live in poverty, and it’s difficult to see how the infrastructure and surrounding areas could support an NBA team.
We’ll award the team to Dakar, Senegal. While it wouldn’t be feasible in 2018, 2068 is a whole different story. If the upwards trajectory of the economy continues, the city will grow and the passion for basketball that already exists in the country will continue to grow. While there are only 2.6 million people there now, there are only 1.3 million each in Oklahoma City and Memphis, and we’ll also be picking a couple of cities in Australia that are of comparable size.
Africa Division: Cairo, Egypt; Johannesburg, South Africa; Lagos, Nigeria; Dakar, Senegal
Asia is perhaps the easiest continent to project out.
An influx of past NBA stars (“stars” in some cases) has only accelerated the growth of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). From Stephon Marbury to Tracy McGrady to Michael Beasley to recent NCAA stars who are fringey NBA players but stars in China like Russ Smith, there has been a steady stream of American talent now heading to the People’s Republic of China.
Basketball is booming in China and has been for quite some time. In fact, just last week the news broke that Dwyane Wade had signed a lifetime contract with shoe company Li-Ning, who he had first signed with back in 2012. While Wade is nearing the end of his playing career, the contract will “calls for Wade to take a ‘greater role’ in youth developmental camps and basketball clinics in China and other parts of the world”.
China has several cities that could host teams, including Hong Kong. But we’ll stick with Shanghai and Beijing, the two biggest cities in China and successful hosts of well-known CBA teams already.
Beyond China, there are several worthy countries that could host teams. India is the most obvious one, but Taiwan and South Korea deserve serious consideration as well. And Tokyo, of course, is the largest city in the world, but doesn’t have the notable basketball history or the momentum that some of the other cities carry and unless something drastic changes on that front in the next 50 years, it likely won’t make the cut.
Additionally, we can’t overlook the rise in popularity of sport, especially basketball and soccer, in North Korea. It’s impossible to know what relations between the DPRK and the United States will look like in 50 years, but if the Korean War ends and there’s a Dennis Rodman-built bridge between the U.S. and North Korea, well … you better believe that The Worm also will have had a hand in placing an NBA squad in the most isolated and heavily-sanctioned nation on the planet.
But for now, we’ll stick with India, placing team in New Delhi and one in Mumbai.
Basketball has been popular in India for a long time. The Basketball Federation of India was formed in 1950, and the nation has been part of FIBA since 1936. There has only been one Indian-born player to appear in an NBA game, but the league has recently recognized the enormous potential that exists in the second-most populous country on earth.
India’s first professional basketball league, the United Basketball Alliance (UBA), began play in 2015 and has grown consistently over its four seasons of play. Legendary NBA ironman A.C. Green, who played in a record 1,192 consecutive games, was named Director of Sport for the UBA in 2017 and brings further credibility to the organization.
There are eight cities represented in the UBA, including the two that we’ll select for NBA expansion. Delhi is the largest metropolitan area in India and a top-3 largest city in Asia. New Delhi is the capital district within the city, and that’s probably where the team will play.
The overall economy of New Delhi is growing rapidly, placing the city ahead of cities such as Johannesburg and in a similar spot to the likes of Beijing when it comes to global retail.
As of 2018, the largest indoor arena in New Delhi seats 14,000 people. It was built in 1982 and renovated in 2010 and surely would need to be replaced prior to play beginning in 2068 — far from a stretch to think that an arena couldn’t be built in relatively short order if the NBA was serious about placing a team in Delhi. The sheer size of the city and the burgeoning business culture in the area will continue to boost the economy and make building a large arena possible.
It is notable that nearly half of the population of Delhi lives in slums, and only 25% of the city’s population live in planned areas, meaning that the NBA would have to overcome items that are taken for granted in the U.S., such as waste removal and exponential growth of landfills.
But, again, population growth, basketball culture and history, and the top-end of the business community will carry New Delhi to the finish line when it comes to landing an NBA club. Progress will need to be made, of course, but there’s too much potential in India, and Delhi in particular, for the NBA to ignore when it comes time for international expansion.
Mumbai is the next-largest metropolitan area in India and a no-brainer when it comes to hosting a team — at least from an economic perspective. It is the wealthiest city in India, with 30 of the nation’s 68 billionaires residing in Mumbai.
This article, published back in 2000, discussed the rich history of basketball in Mumbai but suggested that basketball seemed to be “fading away” in the city. But basketball has picked back up in popularity in recent years.
“You want tournaments? Mumbai never stops playing basketball, hosting tournaments and camps all year round. from the RMBT, to the Mahindra-NBA Challenge, or the Andheri-YMCA Tournament, the Mastan league, and the Bandra/Ghatkopar tournaments, just to name a few. You want fans? 100s of hoop fanatics show up to attend and participate in each of the basketball challenge, highlighted by the amazing interest show in the Mahindra-NBA league. Mumbai is always in the news for hosting camps and basketball events. And the city has some of the best new basketball infrastructure and facilities, including newly inaugurated bball courts. Celebrities get in the act, too, participating and promoting the sport of basketball.”
Karan Madhok of Hoopistani adds that “Mumbai is India’s financial capital and the headquarters of NBA India. It’s the home of some of the most popular local basketball leagues in the country and a huge generation of young players in the grassroots are growing up loving the game there.”
While there is no NBA-ready arena in Mumbai, the wealth in the city and the level of interest in basketball could change that in a hurry.
“Given the right attention from sponsors,” Madhok says, “I think it’s possible that Mumbai could get an arena of [NBA-ready] status over the next 5 years.”
That should settle it. Asia has it’s quartet of teams.
Asia Division: Beijing, China; Shanghai, China; New Delhi, India; Mumbai, India
The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis recently penned a piece about the rise of basketball and the NBA in Australia. It’s a fun read, and it included this interesting tidbit: Australia has the most League Pass subscribers of any country outside of the U.S., and enjoyed an increase of 21% for the 2016–17 season. Australians such as Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova started the recent surge of Aussies in the NBA, and important role players such as Joe Ingles and Dante Exum and the star of Ben Simmons has only accelerated interest in Australia.
As far as potential cities goes, Australia is easy, with exactly four cities that are home to more than two million people: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth.
There isn’t much intrigue here; the infrastructure already exists (there is an arena in each of the four aforementioned cities that holds at least 14,500 people, with three of them already home to an NBL team), and the country is already involved and interested in the game.
While travel between Australia and the United States is probably the most difficult in the current day, a visit to the country could involve relatively seamless travel among each of the four cities within its borders — at least in the year 2068, that is.
Australian Division: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth
This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for — it’s doable, I promise.
Given advancements in travel that are ongoing and will only accelerate (although getting anywhere in the world in under an hour, as Elon Musk and Richard Branson have discussed, seems like an aggressive goal), it doesn’t seem crazy to assume that flight time will be much, much faster in 50 years. (Adam Silver has acknowledged that travel is the biggest hurdle to international expansion, and all but admits that once technology inevitably improves, the expansion will follow.)
Let’s be relatively conservative and say that international flight times will be halved. That means that flying from Los Angeles to Sydney will take a hair over seven hours — longer than any regular flights taken by NBA teams in 2018, but, just to take one example, L.A. to New York is about five hours.
Of course, teams won’t be hopping on a flight to Sydney, playing one game and heading back, either. They’ll stick around awhile.
Under our plan for the 2068 NBA Schedule, the league will be split into three conferences of 16 teams each: West, East, and International. Within each conference, there will be four divisions of four teams each.
Midwest: Chicago, Milwaukee, Indiana, Detroit
Northeast: New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Cleveland
Atlantic: Boston, Washington, Memphis, Toronto
Southeast: Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte
Northwest: Seattle, Portland, Utah, Sacramento
Southwest: Golden State, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Phoenix
South: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Mexico City
Central: New Orleans, Minnesota, Denver, Oklahoma City
Europe: London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid
Africa: Johannesburg, Cairo, Senegal, Nigeria
Asia: Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Delhi
Australia: Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth
For a multitude of reasons, we’ve reduced the number of regular season games to 74. (Yes, the NBA should just go ahead and do that immediately, but that’s a whole different conversation.) Reducing the number of games should make travel much easier, of course, and will also help with wear-and-tear, although we’re banking on smoother travel being conducive to healthier and less worn-down players, too.
The schedule will be done in divisional blocks. For instance, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Mexico City will all travel to Asia for 10 days or so and play all four teams. Then, back home for domestic play. Later in the season, they’ll visit one of the other international divisions and play four more games, and they’ll also host eight total games against the other two international divisions. The schedule will rotate, so every other year each team will play two of the international divisions at home and two away.
It’ll be a little trickier for the International Conference as they’ll have more international travel than the East and West, they’ll also be able to piggyback longer homestands against visiting divisions. And remember, travel from Europe to Africa isn’t the same as hopping the Pacific ocean; Berlin to Cairo will only be a two-hour flight, and hopping over to New Delhi will only be four hours from Egypt.
Even though the International divisions include 16 teams spread over 11 countries, the international travel won’t be all that much more gruelling than some of the travel schedules in today’s NBA, given the proximity of countries and improvements in air travel.
Here’s an example schedule for the Mumbai Motors.
21 home games against International Conference opponents**
21 road games against International Conference opponents**
8 home games against the Western Conference (Division A and C)
8 away games against the Western Conference (Division B and D)
8 home games against the Eastern Conference (Division A and C)
8 away games against the Eastern Conference (Division B and D)
**(Both home/road include each team once, plus two additional inter-divisional games)
Play across conferences would alternate between divisions each year, so the obvious major changes between 2018 and 2068 scheduling would be that each team won’t play every other team every year, and there will be more of an emphasis on inter-divisional play, going from three or four games against divisional opponents in 2018 to six in the 2068 NBA.
How Do We Get Here?
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t all that far-fetched that the NBA will swell to 48 teams over the next 50 years.
The growth rate of the league from 22 teams in 1980 to 30 teams in 2004 was an average of a team every three years; adding 18 teams in 50 years will be one every 2.7 years. While there will absolutely be new challenges when it comes to expanding across oceans, improved technology will assist in streamlining this process.
Will the NBA eventually reward Australia’s massive group of League Pass subscribers with a team of their own? What about the Starbury fans in Beijing or the Way of Wade followers in Shanghai?
If global domination is truly one of the NBA’s goals — and it certainly seems to be — they are on the right path to achieve it. Basketball is the second-most popular sport internationally next to soccer, and the NBA’s attempted conversion of basketball fans into NBA fans seems to be going swimmingly.
Look for domestic expansion to come next, be it Seattle or Hampton Roads or Las Vegas, followed by Mexico City and/or Vancouver. That will happen in the next decade, and will be followed closely by a higher frequency of regular season games played overseas, as the NFL has been doing in recent years.
Schedule reduction will come next in the name of rest, and once planes are measurably faster, European expansion would be the logical next step, followed closely by Asia. And once that happens, things should move rapidly towards a full-fledged, 48-team monster of a league that dominates the international sports landscape.
Now, if we could just get a team back in Seattle…