Why the NBA and Abu Dhabi could be the perfect match

As the NBA arrives in Abu Dhabi for the first time in the league’s history, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks tipping off in two pre-season games, Ben Faber – Regional Director, Middle East – explores the strategy behind the NBA’s landmark decision to take games to this new market.

As the world faces up to some of the most challenging economic conditions in a generation, global rights holders are looking ever more to the Middle East as a destination for continued and relatively secure long-term investment.

A unique socio-economic environment in the region, driven by a high oil price, unparalleled investment in sport and entertainment, in particular from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, two ‘Mega-events’ in successive years – EXPO 2020 and FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, and a swift recovery out of Covid, means that the Gulf is seen by many as an increasingly rare international destination for sustained growth and investment in sport.

One of the first global rights holders who appear to have capitalized on these ‘post-Covid’ market conditions, and on the growing appetite for new investment in sport, is the NBA, who last November announced, “a ground-breaking multiyear partnership to host the first NBA games in the United Arab Emirates”. No doubt the genesis of the partnership was borne out of a long courtship begun pre-Covid, but the timing of the announcement nonetheless was significant

In October, as part of the four-year agreement between NBA and the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi (DCT), the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks are tipping off in two pre-season games at the recently opened Etihad Arena – the first NBA matches ever to take place in the Arabian Gulf. The new partnership also sees ‘Visit Abu Dhabi’ become the Official Tourism Destination Partner of the NBA in China, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

It is a significant statement by the NBA, but perhaps even more so by Abu Dhabi, for whom the partnership is a real coup. Long seen as one of the biggest regional players in world sport, who’s primary competitor for many years lay just down the road in Dubai, Abu Dhabi has more recently found itself part of an ultra-competitive regional landscape, following the opening-up of sports investment in Saudi Arabia, and a World Cup on the horizon in Qatar.

As His Excellency Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman at DCT Abu Dhabi, points out, the opportunity for the Emirate is multi-faceted, “We are very proud to have this multi-year deal with NBA, we have a lot of shared values with the brand. Positioning Abu Dhabi as a hub for world class events and NBA as part of the portfolio will definitely add value to Abu Dhabi, but it’s also about the whole ecosystem of the partnership along with developing talent so it’s not just a game, it’s more than a game.”             

The new partnership follows over a decade of investment to bring high profile sporting events and properties to Abu Dhabi, including Formula 1, DP World Tour golf, AFC Asian Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, World Triathlon Championship Series, Special Olympics World Games, and many more. Those investments, and others, have sought to drive a variety of returns, not least through tourism, investment opportunities for local businesses, grassroots and community participation programs to address health and lifestyle issues, and more broadly the continued ambition to position Abu Dhabi at the epicenter of world sport.

As well as the two annual pre-season fixtures, the partnership will also see a variety of interactive fan events featuring appearances by current and former NBA players, the launch of Jr. NBA Leagues for boys and girls at schools across the UAE, a series of NBA FIT Clinics promoting health and wellness, and an annual NBA 2K League exhibition event.

For Abu Dhabi, the NBA fixtures and supporting program also represent the final stage of the full re-emergence of the Emirate post-Covid, and a renewed focus on driving in-bound tourism. DCT has been running an international summer advertising campaign in key international markets, and once again major events are part of the Emirate’s dynamic offering to overseas visitors.

Meanwhile the NBA have found a new long-term partner with whom they can grow their brand across the Gulf. The Middle East has long been seen as fertile territory for the rights holder given the region’s diverse population that comprizes multiple nationalities predisposed to be basketball fans, a widespread consumption of US lifestyle brands, and a young and digitally savvy demographic dialled into the broader lifestyle attractions of the NBA, in particular music, fashion and esports.

And it is this confluence of regional dynamics that Mark Tatum – NBA Deputy Commissioner points to as key to the attraction for NBA, “There are a number of reasons the NBA is excited to come to Abu Dhabi, one of which being we have a lot of basketball fans here, the UAE is number two in terms of our NBA Pass consumption and number two in terms of our NBA 2K League consumption as well. When we look to bring our games outside of the US, we look for world class facilities and Abu Dhabi certainly has that and is used to hosting huge international events.”

It appears, therefore, that in one another Abu Dhabi and the NBA have found true partners whose ambitions are neatly aligned. Coupled with a unique set of global conditions that are producing favorable opportunities for those with an interest in the Middle East, and the time seems right for the sport of basketball and Abu Dhabi as a global destination to thrive. A perfect match for fans across the region.