Will the NBA Make Basketball the Next Global Sport?

With the NBA draft set to get underway tonight on ESPN (NYSE:DIS) at the Prudential (NYSE:PRU) Center — home of the New Jersey Nets — now more than ever the entire world has reason to watch. Yahoo Sports’ (NASDAQ:YHOO) most recent mock draft lists four international players as top ten picks, with a total of foreigners 7-8 expected to go in the first round. In the past, withstanding some notable exceptions, the NBA has been a league that drafted strictly American players, as top prospects from college and more recently out of high school. Only in past decade has the league witnessed a trend among teams looking to crop talent from overseas.

And its not just the talent filling seats that comes from overseas…as even league owners are becoming more adamant about making the game a truly international sport. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov recently became the owner of the New Jersey Nets, and has made efforts to market the franchise abroad. According to the CS Monitor, “Last year, they [The Nets] made a preseason trip to China, and, prior to that, held a basketball clinic in Russia. They are enthusiastically embracing a longer, broader view of the appeal of the NBA beyond its traditional borders and fan base. The Nets already have a Russian-language website and a TV broadcast deal to televise games in Russia.”

Prokhorov’s got the team’s execs fully on board with his vision too, as Chris Chalier (Nets Chairman) comments, “We’re really trying to differentiate ourselves from any of the other NBA teams, or even the other teams in U.S. sports, in that we want to offer our product, which is NBA-quality basketball, to fans all over the world.”

Figures from international markets, particularly Europe, show that the game is gaining increasing notoriety among citizens on the continent. Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers (who actually grew up in Italy) is the best selling jersey in Europe over the past several years, as NBA merchandise in trans-atlantic markets saw sales go up 35% last year, with another projected rise of 30% in 2011.

Broadcasting too has been a big boon to the sports popularity, with this year’s finals attracting massive audiences overseas. The league’s championship series was broadcast to 215 countries in 41 different languages. The NBA currently features a league record 84 international players, out of a total 400-450 men on team rosters. With some 20% of the league currently representing countries from abroad, and an increasingly avid international fan-base, the NBA is clearly poised to expand its stature as an international brand. Perhaps the league’s decision to host tonight’s draft at the home of the Nets, its most ambitious international advocate, was made to reflect this developing trend.