Rajon Rondo loved Milan.
By “loved,” we mean loved. The Celtics point guard could not stop talking about it last preseason after his team swept through the Italian city as part of its European tour. He declined to get into specifics — what happens in Milan stays in Milan — but he just kept saying, over and over, how marvelously great it was.
Turkey was not as popular with Rondo and the rest of the Celtics players. But Milan … they just ate that place up.
Contrast Rondo’s reaction to his international adventure to the standard lines offered by NFL players before, during and after their league’s now-customary trips to London each season. The football players speak in platitudes about “growing the game” and “experiencing the culture” and “trying to appeal to a new fan base,” then listlessly bump into each other while the crowd wonders if all Americans are as drunk as the guys who designed the Jaguars’ uniforms clearly were.
While the typical NFL game in London is looked at as a tired necessity, Rondo’s response to northern Italy — and the northern Italians’ response to him — is not unique. The original Dream Team demonstrated the international popularity of the game. As the NFL continues to talk big about expanding or relocating a franchise to Old England, the NBA remains the prime candidate among the four major North American sports for European expansion.
The NBA is new and exciting, but not too new and exciting, to the potential fan base.
Soccer, and maybe cricket, will remain dominant in most of the places the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB would look to move into. It’s still tough to see a baseball franchise succeeding anywhere outside of the U.S. or Toronto, which is basically an American city that happens to be on the other side of the border. Much of southern Europe is too warm for hockey, and much of Northern Europe already has its own leagues or clubs that the locals follow just as rabidly as any professional team.
But basketball is novel and cool, yet not as inaccessible as football, with its Byzantine rules and complicated scoring. Honestly, have you ever tried to explain the scoring system in football to someone who is unfamiliar with the game? “Kicking the ball between the uprights is worth three points, but only one point if it comes after a touchdown, which is worth six points, unless the offense tries to score again from the two-yard line, in which case they get two points, which the defense can also get by tackling the offense in its own end zone.”
Compare that to basketball, where free throws are worth one point, most field goals are worth two points and made shots outside the arc on the court are worth three points. The minutiae of the game gets more complicated than that, but it’s an easy place for new fans to start from and will attract more than European football snobs, who are kind of like American soccer snobs, who just like their respective weird, foreign sports for the sense of superiority it gives them.
Fatigue from travel is not as detrimental.
One argument for the feasibility of making the NFL the first league to expand across the Atlantic Ocean is that the weekly format of football would negate many of the negative travel effects. A team could fly in early in the week, practice or rest for several days to get accustomed to a different climate, elevation, time zone and culture, and be fresh for Sundays.
This assumes lots of things, of course. It assumes a long, standard Sunday-to-Sunday workweek, which is less common nowadays with Monday Night Football and a Thursday night game every week. It also assumes everyone is healthy, and that there are no borderline injury cases to be given away by a player traveling or not. Imagine how much Bill Belichick would love to answer questions on Monday about Rob Gronkowski making the trip to London on Tuesday, when the injury report isn’t due out until Friday. The alternative is flying the probables across the pond on Friday or Saturday, at which point you’ve undone all the hard work you did to travel with the rest of the players early.
Do you know what NBA players call a travel schedule like that? Business as usual. It’s not uncommon for the Celtics to take a late-night, six-hour flight from Boston to Los Angeles, immediately hop on a plane after the game for a three-hour flight to Oklahoma City and double back on a four-hour trip to Portland in a matter of four nights. They spend most of February and March in a daze, wondering which time zone they are in and when shootaround will be canceled so they can catch up on sleep. And people wonder why the Celtics slog through their customary midseason West Coast trip.
A seven-hour flight from New York to London the day after a five-hour trek from Phoenix? Shrug.
Players want to play there.
If you don’t think a free agent would be eager to sign with a European club, you’ve never been in an NBA locker room when a female foreign TV correspondent shows up to do a feature on some non-American player. The Brazilian crew that visited to interview Leandro Barbosa last season temporarily made him the most popular person in the Celtics’ locker room. In a world where players rock Gucci and Versace like you or I wear Old Navy and whatever is on the rack at Marshall’s, being close to the high-fashion action would be an obvious draw.
Iceland, Poland and Norway wouldn’t be too popular with players, sure, but the NBA shouldn’t be looking at markets like those anyway. Spain, Italy and France are where the action is. Players native to those countries are already stars in the NBA, and you wouldn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to get them to play there — or to get people to come to games there.
The venues already exist, sort of.
The NFL playing games in Wembley Stadium has created the delusion that American football can neatly be dropped onto a soccer pitch, just like that. It’s not that simple. The turf at Wembley has been an issue in past years, so it remains to be seen how the surface performs this year. There are also adjustments to be made with seating arrangements and sightlines, since a football field is longer and narrower.
By contrast, basketball gymnasiums are all over the place. They may not have the capacity or the fineries of most NBA arenas, but it’s a starting point. Upgrades and completely new construction are possible for both sports, but the cost of a football stadium dwarfs that cost of a multipurpose basketball venue. (MetLife Stadium cost an estimated $1.6 billion to build in East Rutherford, N.J., or 60 percent more than it cost to build Barclays Center in Brooklyn.)
“Best” does not mean this is a good idea.
Let’s finish with one massive, overarching point: We are not advocating to put a team in Rome or Barcelona or Paris. It would be a challenging logistical undertaking, and just how it would work from a financial standpoint would take a lot of pencils and a really strong pocket calculator. No smart businessman is going to love to move his business, secure funding for a new office and playing facility and dump millions into a roster knowing the political and economic mess in, say, Italy. Think of all the exchange-rate consternation the Blue Jays and Raptors used to complain about when the U.S. and Canadian dollars were more lopsided. That’s nothing compared to the migraines the owner of a sports franchise would get by constantly checking the International news page, worrying how instability in Greece would impact the euro.
Still, of all the bad ideas pro sports leagues have about expanding overseas, the NBA’s idea might be the least bad, for what that’s worth. Count Rondo among those who would sign on, if it meant getting at least one visit per year to Milan.