Two of the most famous names in NBA basketball bounce into London’s 02 on Thursday night looking to move a step closer not only to silverware, but also to boost their global commercial appeal.
Boston Celtics are among the US’s greatest sports franchises, and decades ago were the epitome of basketball.
In the late 1950s and 1960s they clinched an unparalleled run of eight straight championships as they dominated the NBA as few clubs have done in any sport.
The Philadelphia 76ers have struggled in recent decades but were at one time another powerhouse, and are currently seeing the fruition of a four year sports and business rebuilding programme.
These historic rivals meet in the eighth regular-season NBA game to be held in London, at a time when the league is capturing new young fans across North America, and is seeking to capitalise on its sporting icons overseas.
The ‘business of winning’
Both clubs have young, revamped teams this season, and energetic off-court activity has also seen them maximise ticket revenues, increase their social media presence, and sign a number of high-profile sponsorship deals.
However, the priority is recapturing former sporting glories – the last of the Celtics’ 17 title wins was in 2008 and the 76ers’ third league success was in 1983 – with commercial growth driving construction of potentially-successful sides.
“For us it is all starts with winning championships, all the other stuff then follows,” Boston Celtics president Rich Gotham tells me.
“We don’t run the business for the sake of making profit, but to invest in our product, for our team… the best players, with the most competitive resources and best coaches around then.”
And Scott O’Neil, chief executive of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Philadelphia 76ers and also Crystal Palace football club, concurs.
“We are here to win championships, nothing is more important,” he says. “Winning and business are linked. Our aim is to have a business that is strong enough to drive the growth of a team that can compete at the top level on the basketball court.”
The NBA chooses which fixtures to stage overseas, and this year is bringing some of the most exciting young players to the UK, such as Celtics’ Kyrie Irving and 76ers’ Joel Embiid.
Mr Gotham says the London game allows the Celtics – who currently sit top of the NBA Eastern Conference – to remind fans not only in the UK, but also mainland Europe, of their sporting prowess and business presence.
“We consider ourselves to be a global brand,” he says. “We are doing our part as an NBA member [by playing in London], but more selfishly we know we have a lot of fans here in Europe.
“We think there are still more opportunities out there for the Celtics and the NBA across Europe… we are trying to understand how to increase the national and international reach.”
He adds: “Of the US sports, the NBA far and away brings in more money from international business; like media rights, licensing, ticket sales to our events.”
He says there is potential for revenue growth not just in Europe, but also in Asia – with 400 million people watching NBA games on TV in China alone.
At the start of this season the Celtics, the most successful club in NBA history, signed a major shirt sponsor deal with global conglomerate GE, whose corporate headquarters are in Boston.
“We are kindred brands in that they are a traditional, recognised, brand, with a strong legacy of excellence and success,” says Mr Gotham.
“Their relationship with the Celtics, and NBA, gives them a relevance and an avenue to a younger, multi-cultural, digital-savvy demographic.”
Like so many sports organisations around the world, the Celtics are investing heavily in analytics, allowing it to be more efficient across such areas as player purchases, fan interaction, and efficient ticketing.
“There was a secondary market in Celtics’ tickets that we did not participate in – other companies were extracting market value out of our assets,” says Mr Gotham.
“We set up an analytics model to look at what the secondary market could [financially] bear, so that we could maximise yield and not let other businesses – who were not paying our players – do it.”
‘Increase in interest’
Fans and tickets are also uppermost in the thoughts of the 76ers, who sold a record number of season tickets for the current 2017-18 campaign. and expect all home games to be sold out this season.
“We will be at at capacity for the foreseeable future,” says Mr O’Neil. “On every measure there has been a dramatic increase in interest – we have 14,000 season ticket holders now, up 40% on the previous year, and are in the top three in league attendances.
“Also, a few years ago we had no live games on TV in the US, this season we have got twelve. It is incredible.”
He says the club has built a digital content team to boost its social media presence, while replica jersey sales are also increasing. Meanwhile ticket brokerage Stubhub has signed as shirt sponsor, and other business partners include Toyota, Corona, Pepsi, and Australian meat pie firm Four’n Twenty.
“We have… top business people here in terms of marketing and sales, but that all pales in significance to having two superstars on court – Embiid from Cameroon and Simmons from Australia,” says Mr O’Neil.
“Embiid is a social media giant, he is an unbelievable personality who can capture a market for us globally, as our fan base grows across the world,” he adds.
“We have a real international roster – we also have players from Croatia, France, Turkey. We can become a global brand.”
He said overseas fans firstly follow players, then teams, and then leagues, which is why the 76ers are using social media to build player personalities and stories in a number of different languages. As with the Celtics and NBA generally, China is a big potential market.
He says the club, looking to secure a playoffs place this season, is now seeing the benefits of its extensive sporting and business rebuild in recent years.
“We believe that patience is the last arbitrage in sport,” says Mr O’Neil. “It has been a tough decade. This is a process that has taken some time.
“But this is a young team that has big eyes and is very confident. We can be only hopeful about what comes.”