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The NBA, From Russia With Love


The Nets sale is just the latest play from basketball's longtime Russian fans.

In the business of sports, there's been a lot of ink spent in the past week on examining the groundbreaking, yet still pending, sale of the woeful New Jersey Nets to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. And groundbreaking it is. If the NBA's Board of Governors (that means "owners") approve the sale, it would be the first time that a foreign owner would have a controlling ownership of a North American professional sports team.

The deal can also be seen as groundbreaking in that the sale may finally open the path for the Nets move to Brooklyn as part of the $4 billion Atlantic Yards development project. Prokhorov's ownership conditions would give him a 45% stake in the team's new arena in downtown Brooklyn. In addition to the arena, the Atlantic Yards projects would create more than 1,000 housing units, with more than half of them being touted as being "affordable or middle-income."

"This is a great opportunity, both from an international perspective for the NBA, but also for New York and Brooklyn's large Russian population," said Ben Strumer, CEO of the Leverage Agency, a sports sponsorship and branding company that works with the Nets to broker international marketing partnerships. "It looks like this will seal the deal for Brooklyn, which is good for Brooklyn and will bring in revenue opportunities."

But is it groundbreaking in terms of opening the doors for an NBA relationship with Russia? Well, not exactly.

"People tend to forget that the NBA was pretty active in Russia dating back to the late 80s," said Terry Lyons, now a sports marketing consultant who as the NBA's senior vice president of international public relations was on the ground for every significant event that paved the way for the league's current international prominence.

"There's a huge foundation of connections that over the past 20 years has paved the way to make this relationship work," said Lyons.

The NBA's involvement with Russia dates back to the summer of 1988, when the Atlanta Hawks became the first NBA team to play in the Soviet Union, defeating the Soviet Georgia All-Stars, 85-84, in an exhibition game. More recently, the LA Clippers held their preseason training camp in Moscow and took to the court in a game against CSKA Moscow. Not surprisingly, the Clippers, perennially among the worst teams in all of professional sports, lost 94-75.

The growth of the NBA's relationship with the country can also be measured by other metrics: In 1989, the NBA and the USSR State Committee for Television and Radio teamed up to broadcast the league's first game ever aired on Soviet National Television. In the 2009-10 season, five channels in Russia will carry NBA games, including a subscription-based network that airs NBA content 24-hours a day.

If the deal goes through, it will open up additional marketing sponsorship opportunities for the Nets, who currently have "Founding Partners" deals with ADT, Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Cushman & Wakefield, EmblemHealth, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Jones Soda Co., MetroPCS (PCS), and Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) in place for the proposed Brooklyn Barclays Center (BCS).

When asked about his prediction on what the first likely corporate target would be, Leverage's Strumer didn't hesitate.

"Vodka," he replied.
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