01 Jun 2014

Net Gains

The NBA's new deputy commissioner scouts the league's emerging markets
by Dan Morrell


On his first day at HBS, Mark Tatum (MBA 1998) went to the career office, told them he wanted a job in the business of sports, and came home with a printout of every relevant alumnus in the HBS database. Then he hit the phones. "Remember, this is before email," he says with a laugh. "I was cold calling them." His persistence paid off: He's marking his 15th anniversary with the National Basketball Association next month—and he'll be celebrating it in a new office. Tatum was named deputy commissioner and COO of the NBA in February, charged with all business operations of the league, which includes everything from marketing communications to information technology to pure international business.

It's this last responsibility that has Tatum really animated. "When you look at the opportunity we have to grow our business and our game around the world, it's just truly incredible," he says. He points to China as a prime example of the league's international potential realized. Thanks to a decades-long campaign, the country is now the NBA's largest international market, with more than 100 employees, wide TV distribution on state broadcaster CCTV, and a heavy social and digital media presence. "We've seen what can happen decades later when you make an investment in a country." So where is the NBA's next China? Tatum offers three of the league's growing international markets and explains how the NBA works its global game.


First office opened: 2011 (Mumbai)

Having established a strong market in the world's most populous country, the NBA is making a hard push for number two. "We've really been focused on teaching the game of basketball in India," says Tatum. "The sport is not necessarily endemic there, so you have to invest in education." Since 2008, the league has held more than 500 grassroots events across 10 Indian cities, featuring instruction by current and former NBA players and coaches. Last year, the NBA partnered with the Reliance Foundation—the philanthropic arm of Reliance Industries, India's largest private company—to implement basketball-based fitness clinics at more than 225 schools, training coaches and getting more than 140,000 students on the court.


First office opened: 2010 (Johannesburg)

As evidenced by the six African players on NBA rosters, the sport has a more advanced presence on the continent. So the approach there is different: For the past 11 years, the league has run a Basketball without Borders camp, bringing together nearly 900 up-and-coming players from 31 African countries for a weeklong training program. Led by NBA stars past and present, sessions include everything from rebounding to social responsibility. "We're trying to teach these kids not just about the game but also about life," says Tatum. The next step in developing the market—which Tatum notes has one of the youngest populations of any region in the world—is an NBA game on African soil. At this point, he says, it's just a matter of infrastructure. "The question now is, at what point can we go over and host a game or something more formal than a clinic."


First office opened: 2012 (Rio de Janeiro)

The NBA held its first game in South America last October, with a sellout crowd of nearly 14,000 in Rio watching the Bulls edge the Wizards. Tatum says that Brazil's pre–World Cup infrastructure investments have made the spread of the game a bit easier, but he's looking two years ahead for an even bigger push. "Basketball is a very established sport there," he says. "But with the 2016 Summer Olympics being held in Rio—and given how big a profile basketball has in the Olympics—we think there is tremendous opportunity for the game to take off."

Game Plan: How the NBA moves into a new market

The first thing Tatum thinks about when moving into a new part of the map: "How can we get our content to that market?" That means getting games on TV, online, and, increasingly, in consumers' hands via mobile devices. From there, the league needs to figure out the right media partners to distribute the product. If all that succeeds, the next move is investing in ground operations. "We set up an office, which is a combination of businesspeople and people focused on development of the game," says Tatum. That team works with everyone from sponsors to local governments to set up events and training programs—spreading the game from the ground up.

Photo credits: NBA/Getty Images

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1998, Section G

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