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Interview with Benjamin Morel, Senior Vice President and Managing Director EMEA for the NBA

It’s a slam dunk for a global brand

Since it was founded in 1946, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has become the largest and most beloved basketball league in the world, achieved through fantastic competition on the court, combined with intelligent marketing. We spoke with Benjamin Morel, Senior Vice President and Managing Director EMEA at the NBA, about the fascination with basketball and what managers can learn from the sport.

Benjamin Morel, Senior Vice President & Managing Director EMEA at NBA, / © EMEA / NBA

European Business: Mr. Morel, the NBA is an absolute symbol for basketball. Where does its popularity stem from?

Benjamin Morel: NBA games are simply pure entertainment. Iconic players from the past such as Michael Jordan and today’s superstars like LeBron James and Steph Curry are recognised throughout the world. Through the way they play the game and their individual characters, they have contributed significantly to the NBA’s popularity today and that of the sport in general. We have a lot of international players like Dirk Nowitzki and Dennis Schröder, who play an immense role locally. Basketball is, above all, a global sport. This gives us an advantage over other US leagues in that we don’t need to import a sport. There is a basket in every gym, and kids are exposed to the sport very early on. The NBA has become a lifestyle brand that extends beyond sport. This is reflected by our own NBA online-store for Europe (Nbastore.eu) as well.

European Business: The NBA is very present in Europe, for example, at NBA Global Games in London last winter. In what role do you see the NBA in relation to the development of European basketball?

Benjamin Morel: Morel: Although the NBA is based in the USA, it is very integral in the development of global talent. This is not just about elite players, but also about the league’s grassroots efforts aimed at getting more and more kids bouncing the ball instead of kicking it. The more kids that play basketball, the better it is for the development of the sport in general and for the NBA in particular. Europe is an important region with significant potential and some incredible talent. Currently, 113 international players from 41 countries play in the NBA – of these, 61 are from Europe, with Jakob Poeltl arriving this season as the first Austrian in NBA history. Together with FIBA, we invest in the promotion of young talent and, for example, organise regular European training camps - ‘Basketball without Borders’ – where the most talented young players from across Europe are trained by players and coaches from the NBA and FIBA.

The NBA fosters the young generation of basketball player by the ʻBasketball without Bordersʼ project / © NBA

European Business: Does the NBA see a distinct marketing field in Europe, or can we also welcome a European team in the NBA in the near future?

Benjamin Morel: In the long term, this could be a possibility. In the short and medium term however, this is not on the agenda. Because of the demanding game schedule in the NBA, one single team would make no sense; we would therefore have to create a European division. For that, among other things, it would be necessary to have “Indoor sports and entertainment venues” which meet NBA standards. Currently, there are only a few such facilities in Europe (London, Berlin and Paris, for example). In addition, we would also need the European ‘basketball economy” to improve.

Caps are among the lifestyle classics / © NBA

European Business: Coming back to you personally, you are Managing Director in EMEA. What does that mean in terms of your areas of responsibility and your daily business?

Benjamin Morel: I work with around 70 dedicated and highly talented staff out of our head office for the region in London and have an incredibly varied role. This extends to both the geographic diversity of the region that I am responsible for – countries, languages and cultures – as well as the business diversity. I am accountable for, among other things, the negotiation of TV rights, Jr. NBA leagues and the establishment of NBA cafes like the one we recently opened in Barcelona. These examples serve to show how relevant the NBA is in so many different areas. I am responsible for ensuring that we are ideally positioned to be successful from a strategic perspective.

European Business: The NBA is a world-renowned brand. Where do you see the similarities and the differences to a classic brand, for example Coca-Cola or Mercedes?

Benjamin Morel: I agree that the NBA is a globally recognized brand, not only in sport, but also in the entertainment space. Among other things, the NBA logo as a fashion statement is a key example of that. That is multiplied many times over, if you consider our teams and players. Like any other brand, we must stick to our values.

Also the youngest ones get the right dress: Babywear by NBA Fashion / © NBA

European Business: Sport and business are often closely linked. How do you maintain the balance between the highest sporting demands and economic interests?

Benjamin Morel: One affects the other. The NBA was originally a sports league, and without sporting success we simply wouldn’t exist. Our mantra is ‘basketball first.’ The sport itself is always the most important aspect of our business and this will not change. For this reason, our focus is always on the demands of the sport. Business and marketing are ways to improve the NBA experience and monetise it through fan consumption.

European Business: The NBA is breaking new ground. Virtual reality is literally a reality. What are the reasons for this step?

Benjamin Morel: In my opinion, basketball has the best seats in the world of sport. In no other sport can fans sit so close to the game and its stars. The experience of having courtside seats is incomparable. Virtual reality allows us to offer this opportunity to fans who may never have the chance to attend a live game, especially considering the globality of our fan base. At the moment, the technology we have is about 5% of the possibilities that we will have in five years’ time. The experience of VR will therefore improve significantly and it will be great to be able to offer fans, whether they are in China, Brazil or Germany, the authentic NBA arena experience in the future. Already this season, our NBA League Pass subscribers are experiencing NBA games live in virtual reality with the support of our partner NextVR who enables the live transmission of long-form virtual reality content. So far, this has worked really well.

BU5 The NBA developed itself as a brand, also employing own fashion collections / © NBA

European Business: What media can be used to maximise the reach of the NBA?

Benjamin Morel: Of course amazing content and live broadcast best conveys the overall feel of the game. Perform is a strong partner for us in Germany, which offers us a great variety of options for reaching fans, for example through Spox and DAZN among other channels. Naturally, short-form content has become increasingly more important on various social media channels such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The NBA is a leader in this space; probably no other rights holder offers its fans so much content away from the traditional platforms. Through our merchandise, such as our fashion products or our video game partner NBA2K, we additionally offer our fans many other ways to connect with the NBA.

Chicago Bulls-shirt of the exclusive Filter Collection/ © NBA

European Business: What makes basketball so fascinating for you?

Benjamin Morel: Basketball is a game you can play easily and almost anywhere. You can find a hoop nearly anywhere and can get started, whether one-on-one, three-on-three or the classic five-on-five. It is fast and athletic, but also integrates people from all different backgrounds. On the court, it doesn’t matter where you come from; the important thing is that you play together as a team. In addition, there are several unique role models in basketball who are fascinating from both an athletic and a character perspective.

European Business: In your opinion, what can managers learn from basketball?

Benjamin Morel: As a manager, I use a lot of basketball analogies in my work. For example, it is important for me to take time out to determine the strategy when approaching an upcoming task before just beginning the work, but at the same time, once a plan or play has been decided on, it is time to focus on executing, especially when the clock is running down and you have to make a clutch decision. In basketball, teamwork is key. Every player has his role, without which the team would not be successful. This is mirrored in business: every employee, every department, has a role to play, and success comes through cooperation and collaboration.

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