Going Glo-Ball: With Powerful Global Marketing, the NBA Is Pushing Basketball Past Soccer as the Most Popular Sport in the World-And Leaving Football and Baseball Far Behind

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Looking back, the turning point for the explosive growth of the National Basketball Association was almost certainly the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, still amateurs, led Team USA to an 8-0 record and a gold medal. The Americans showed off a swaggering, dynamic style of play that would lift the NBA out of years of decline.

At the time, few people seemed to care. "We had the best players who ever lived," Peter Ueberroth, who organized the 1984 Games, says now. "But people were more interested in other sports." The exploits of gymnast Mary Lou Retton and sprinter Carl Lewis attracted the media and the fans.

More important forbasketball, the 1984 Games changed the financial model of the Olympics--and of all sports, everywhere--forever. The NBA has applied the lessons of Los Angeles better than any other sports organization in the world. Today's NBA operates on Version 2.0 of Peter Ueberroth's business plan.

For years, the Olympics had hemorrhaged money. The 1976 Montreal Games lost $1 billion. But Ueberroth aggressively auctioned TV rights to ABC for $225 million, almost three times the previous fee. Then he offered different tiers of Olympic sponsorship to a select crowd of corporations, yielding $127 million, compared to less than $10 million paid by corporate sponsors at the previous U.S.-based Games. Far higher ticket prices produced six times as much revenue as the earlier Olympics. In the end, the Games had a $232 million surplus, which Ueberroth gave to youth sports programs.

Among the spectators in Los Angeles was Ueberroth's daughter Heidi, who had just finished her freshman year at Vanderbilt. A decade later, after working in sports television and promotion in Europe, she took a job with the NBA to help expand the league worldwide. The Olympic summer had provided a basic curriculum in the modern science of sports marketing and management, and, as the NBA'S top official for global growth, she has shown she got the perfect education.

The first lesson of the 1984 Games for Heidi Ueberroth was to build relationships aggressively. When the Soviet Union announced in May 1984 that it would boycott the Olympics--in retaliation for President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, which was a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--Heidi's father lobbied governments vigorously to come to Los Angeles. He met face to face with foreign officials and told them: We need you to come. The direct approach worked. In the end, only 14 Iron Curtain nations joined the Soviet boycott, and they had little choice.

A second lesson came from the Chinese, whose decision to participate gave cover to other Communist states that wanted to come. China saw sports as a way to rebrand itself in the years after Mao died. The Chinese Olympics slogan--"Break Out of Asia and Advance on the World"--captured the growing importance of global audiences and markets. When a crowd of 93,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum cheered the Chinese, Heidi Ueberroth remembers, "It was deafening, the kind of thing that gives you chills."

The third lesson came from Li Ning, the Chinese gymnast who won three gold medals and six medals overall. Li dominated the floor exercises with his breathtaking leaps, three feet higher than other gymnasts, and twisting once more than other gymnasts as he somersaulted through the air. It was one of the most daring performances at the 1984 Games.

Now Heidi Ueberroth has one of the most daring jobs in all sports--to make basketball the most popular game in the world, surpassing soccer, and to make the NBA the most powerful global athletic league.

Beat soccer? To most experts, the idea sounds quixotic. Soccer is more popular than basketball practically everywhere in the world outside the United States. According to the Gaskins Company, in any given year three billion fans view soccer games on TV or in person. …