How Obama’s support for NBA Africa venture could boost basketball on the continent
Former US President Barack Obama’s decision to invest in the African business of the National Basketball Association reflects a lot of his background – his youth as a basketball player and his African roots. It also signals that his future ambitions extend beyond US borders.
The Basketball Africa League was launched in 2021 as a collaboration between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). The inaugural competition consisted of 12 teams from 12 different countries. The Egyptian team, Zamalek, won the first championship against a Tunisian team.
The competition includes the top teams from the domestic leagues that qualify for the tournament, as do international club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League. The Basketball Africa League competition is jointly managed by the NBA and FIBA according to Basketball Africa Africa League President Amadou Gallo Fall.
Obama decided to invest, combining his love of basketball with his desire to contribute to the social and economic development of Africa. Through the Obama Foundation, he helps train future African leaders as well as promote the continent globally.
Obama, basketball and diplomacy
Obama grew up playing basketball, winning a high school state championship in Hawaii and later playing at Occidental College in California. He played in the Senate gymnasium during his time there and was known for having celebrities like Magic Johnson join his White House pickup matches.
At a campaign event for President Joe Biden last November, cameras caught Obama casually sinking a three-pointer while passing through a school gymnasium. His basketball skills earned him credentials on the street as a politician, helping the smart Ivy-leaguer seem more grounded.
Sport has always been a useful tool for international diplomacy, a point underlined by Obama when announcing his deal with the NBA.
He is not the first president to take this route. Former US President Richard Nixon used table tennis to unfreeze relations with communist China in the 1970s. His campaign has been called ping-pong diplomacy. Decades later, the US State Department officially established the Sports Diplomacy Program in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The program – which is still as active today – aims to reach young people in countries from the Middle-East. Since then, the programs have expanded globally with a wide range of initiatives.
Although Obama’s role in NBA Africa is not directly related to US diplomatic efforts, his presence serves as a type of informal diplomacy in a region where the US has struggled to maintain a consistent positive diplomatic role.
An international NBA
For several decades, the National Basketball Association has focused on expanding into the international market as a source of talent, revenue and fans. There was a long campaign to bring a Chinese star to the League culminating in Yao Ming joining the Houston Rockets in 2002.
The NBA and its players have a longer relationship with Africa. In 1959, the US State Department sponsored Boston Celtics star Bill Russell’s tour of West Africa. Following his stay in Africa, Russell purchased a rubber plantation in Liberia. The media hailed Russell’s venture as proof of the success of black capitalism, and his visit raised the profile of basketball in the region.
Nigerian Hakeem Olajawan became the first African NBA player in 1984, paving the way for dozens of future African NBA stars including Manute Bol, Dikembe Motumbo and dozens of current players.
The NBA launched its Basketball Without Borders program in 2001, beginning in Europe just as they were working to bring Yao Ming to the United States. Since 2003, he has been committed to expanding his presence in Africa by building on the popularity of Olajawan and others who had begun to find success in the NBA. Since retiring, Olajawan has served as the NBA’s ambassador to Africa. He also made a special appearance for Team Africa at the 2015 NBA Africa exhibition game in South Africa.
In 2003, the NBA expanded its annual Basketball Without Borders program to Johannesburg, South Africa, not the home region of African NBA players, but the most lucrative market. The NBA opened its African office in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2010 and has continued to expand its efforts across the continent, culminating in the launch of the international tournament in 2021.
Recently, US presidents and their families have become increasingly connected to professional sports. The difference in Obama’s case is the international scope of his engagement, showing that he sees himself playing a role outside of the United States.
Over the past year, the former president has increased his public presence. He joined Joe Biden’s campaign leading up to the November election, published his latest book, A Promised Land, and started a podcast with singer Bruce Springsteen. After four years of relative silence under the Trump presidency, Obama seems to be emerging from the shadows.
Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, were voted the world’s most admired man and most admired woman in a 2020 survey of 42 countries. His popularity will surely boost NBA Africa’s prospects and develop his own brand as a global entrepreneur and philanthropist.
While expanding the reach of the NBA can help basketball grow in Africa, there is no doubt that the combination of the world’s premier basketball league with the most African-born leader popular will do much to promote the league’s brand and help shape future growth. basketball on the African continent.
This article has been updated to correct the title of Amadou Gallo Fall, the Basketball Africa League’s relationship with the National Basketball Association and the International Basketball Federation as well as the date of the first Basketball Without Borders camp to be held in Africa.