If you brave the heat and humidity of Central Florida in August, you’re likely to find the future of the NBA nestled somewhere within the sprawling 25,000 acres that comprise Walt Disney World. That’s where the Jr. NBA Global Championship, a tournament with over 350 teenagers representing 40 different countries, takes place at the ESPN World Wide of Sports, just south of both Orlando and Cinderella’s Castle.
The round-robin tournament is made up of 16 teams (eight boys, eight girls) from different regions around the U.S., while another two teams represent each of eight international regions: Africa, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, Europe/Middle East, India, Latin America and Mexico. Teams compete at smaller tournaments both in the U.S. and internationally, and the winners then travel to Orlando.
It’s likely that you haven’t heard of the Global Championship, now in its second year. Youth basketball has been growing steadily in popularity and exposure, particularly as fans of the sport want to be aware of the next potential superstar. Zion Williamson, the first pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, had gained a solid following before ever stepping onto Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University. But even Williamson wasn’t generating widespread interest until his high-school career was near its end. The Jr. NBA tournament is only open to 13- and 14-year-olds, and half the competitors are made up of international players.
Given the relative anonymity of the participants, why have the tournament in the first place? “We see huge opportunity, not just for the Jr. NBA Global Championship but for the entire Jr. NBA platform,” says David Krichavsky, the NBA’s Senior Vice-President and Head of Youth Basketball Development, who spoke with Forbes for an exclusive interview. “We’re currently in 75 different countries with 50 million boys and girls. We’re more global than ever but we look at markets like China and India and Africa and still think there’s extensive room for growth that we can do with our grassroots programs.”
The tournament itself is a “significant expense” for the league, explains Krichavsky, one that includes paying for travel and accommodations for participants and coaches. But it also includes an extensive marketing campaign, as well as an upgraded branding of the event designed to give the players “a virtual NBA or WNBA experience,” from the design of the court to the full week’s worth of programming that includes seminars on everything from hydration to meditation.
Organizers made adding corporate sponsors a major focus since the inaugural event took place in 2018 and the tournament now boasts nearly 20 marketing partnerships, according to Krichavsky. That represents a double-digit growth in the number of partners from the previous year, all of which “are making significant investments in helping grow this event alongside with us.” Through the league’s partnership with Disney, a day at the Magic Kingdom for all participants is provided, as is the use of the ESPN complex. Gatorade products are available behind every bench. Video-game company Electronic Arts sponsored a community “Day of Service” when players refurbished a park in the nearby city of Kissimmee.
Twitch, a subsidiary of Amazon, is also on the growing list of partners for the tournament. The streaming platform has a significant following among gamers and younger users, a key demographic for expanding the tournament’s reach. And because it’s free and available worldwide, users – including family members of participants – can watch games from anywhere. Twitch also archives all of the games, providing an unexpected benefit to the coaches in Orlando. “They’ve been plugging in to laptops and televisions in meeting rooms and doing film sessions, using the Twitch sessions to break down their own game film and preview opponents,” Krichavsky said with a chuckle. “It’s really a terrific partnership.”
Still, perhaps no entity will be as key for the tournament’s future success as its current media partner, FOX Sports. Krichavsky considers the “A-list broadcasting talent” and “first-class production” to be on par with other FOX properties, like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games. And like other partners, FOX is determined to help develop the Global Championship into a shared viewing experience in households around the U.S. “Ultimately, we would like to help grow this event into one of the highlights of the summer, and push the Jr. NBA brand forward,” says Bill Wanger, FOX’s Executive Vice-President and Head of Programming and Scheduling, via email. “We wanted to be in business with the NBA from a national perspective and felt that this type of grassroots tournament was a perfect way to begin.”
The numbers show incremental growth from the first year of the tournament. On “Championship Sunday,” the last day of the tournament and when the winners of each bracket compete for the title, viewership was up 7% for a full slate of coverage. For the boys’ final, when the team from Africa faced the U.S. winner from the Central Region, viewership increased 18%.
Even as viewership and the tournament’s brand continues to grow, the event itself is evolving, as one would expect given its relative novelty. Televised contests were moved to single court (the ESPN complex offers multiple playing courts) for improved production value. Game windows were lengthened to 90 minutes to cover contests from start-to-finish on just a single FOX channel. “The extra time,” Wanger explains, “provided us more room for storytelling about the kids, which is important for the viewers.”
Nothing was off-limits, even the name itself. In 2018, the tournament was marketed as the “Jr. NBA World Championship.” In 2019, “World” was changed to “Global,” to align more closely with other league nomenclature. “We refer to the “NBA Cares” program as the global social responsibility platform of the NBA. The Jr. NBA is our global youth basketball program,” explains Krichavsky. “It also creates some distinction from other world championships that exist. So, it’s been a minor tweak but a successful one.”
To a large degree, the NBA’s youth programs are defined by counterbalances. The league has invested heavily in its NBA Academies, training centers established in Australia, China, India, Mexico,and Senegal. And while the NBA is unmistakably bolstering business growth in the untapped markets Krichavsky described, the Academies also benefit local economies, chiefly by providing educational opportunities and offering financial support to participants that are in desperate need of such things. Interwoven with the basketball skills that are taught to children around the globe are lessons on leadership, character development and community involvement, components of the core values the NBA defines itself by.
That balance applies heavily to the Jr. NBA Global Championship. Beyond the polished marketing, as well as the corporate power and structure of the NBA, there’s a palpable enthusiasm from event organizers, not unlike what you would find at any other startup. Particularly at these early stages of the event, tournament organizers depend on feedback from players and their families. Nothing is off the table, from hotel accommodations to the seminars offered throughout the week. In 2018, the food options provided to participants were, according to Krichavsky, “mostly Americanized.” There was a need for more diversity and so modifications were made. “A great teaching opportunity,” says Krichavsky. “So much of what makes this event special is using basketball to break down differences in culture and nationality and language. And food is a big part of that, as well. Kids could engage with each other through cuisine.”
Of course, even as the tournament promotes youth sports and amateurism at its highest level, there are goals of continuing to expand broadcast opportunities and filling the seats of the ESPN Complex. The event, through it might be free of charge, is still sparsely attended. But increased ratings offer an encouraging sign of widespread interest. Each new partnership offers their resources to help establish the Global Championship brand. In just a few years, one of the players from the past two tournaments could become the next LeBron James, Zion Williamson or Giannis Antetokounmpo. It may take years before seeing a significant return on investment, but the league, thriving more than ever, can afford to be patient. “We’re on positive trajectory and we’re very pleased with where we are,” offers Krichavsky. “We’re building something for the long term.”