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Building relationship

NBA views London arena as key step for future plans

LONDON - With 12 steel masts stretching more than 100 yards and supporting a circus-style tent large enough to hold 18,000 double-decker buses, the outer shell of the O2 arena creates a unique vision against a backdrop of modern office buildings in southeast London. The sports and entertainment facility sets a new standard, even compared with large, multipurpose American venues. There are 25 restaurants, an 11-screen movie theater, a space called the London Piazza that is converted into a beach during the summer, and a museum that is housing the King Tut exhibit.

The 20,000-seat arena will host its first basketball game today when the Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves play an exhibition contest, perhaps paving the way for a regular-season NBA game at the venue. With the state-of-the-art arena recently hosting regular-season NHL games, as well as concerts by Justin Timberlake, Prince, and the Rolling Stones, the grand vision for the O2 also could include a London-based NBA team calling it home. Judging how impressed the Celtics and Timberwolves were upon taking the floor for practice, an NBA franchise could move in and feel completely comfortable.

"The O2 center is, I suspect, the best arena in the world at the moment," said London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, who would find little argument from those who have visited the venue, which opened in June on a site that was formerly the failed Millennium Dome. "This has taken a really run-down part of London where nobody ever went and made it a world destination."

While NBA commissioner David Stern knows the league is a long way logistically and financially from expanding to Europe, the building of these arena complexes represents an essential first step. Given the O2 amenities and a Boston-Minnesota game that quickly sold out, Stern proudly mentioned that "For the first time, the economics of a regular-season game [in Europe] may come into sharper focus" and allow the NBA to seriously consider the possibility.

Stern also sees the O2 and the new arena in Berlin serving as a "catalyst for Europe-wide development." AEG, the American company that owns and operates Staples Center in Los Angeles, was the driving force behind the O2 and Berlin arenas. Undoubtedly, AEG will continue pursuing arena development opportunities in Europe. While the Celtics visited Rome last week, city officials were in talks to build a new facility.

"The biggest issue has always been buildings," said Stern. "Now you're talking about London, Berlin, Madrid, and one looks around and says, 'How can Milan be far behind?' All of a sudden, you have the facilities. The O2 will be sold out [tonight]; people will see how it looks. There will be speculation about [a bigger NBA presence in Europe], and we're going to do nothing to dampen that speculation."

Sporting chance in city

Instead, the NBA is continuing its second European tour with as much fanfare and publicity as it can generate as teams stop in London; Rome; Milan; Treviso, Italy; Istanbul; Madrid; and Malaga, Spain. Stern met with Livingstone yesterday afternoon at London City Hall, then ventured into the rain for a look at London taxis branded with NBA images. The pair posed for pictures beside the taxis with London Bridge in the background, a postcard image of two men who hope the city and the league do more business together.

When asked if he envisioned an NBA franchise in London, Livingstone said, "We would love this . . . As soon as they want to come back, we'll have them. We'll have them every week. I will do anything that the league wants me to do to support it, getting it into the schools and so on."

Livingstone acknowledges work must be done before London can realistically embrace the NBA as something more than a once-a-year novelty. In preparation for tonight's contest, the NBA, in partnership with the Evening Standard, distributed a special promotional paper defining such basketball terminology as a dunk, blocked shot, assist, layup, and technical foul. The 16-page handout also described the responsibilities of each position, as well as the NBA game.

While it might make more sense for European countries with an established basketball culture to host a regular-season game, the O2 has helped convince Stern the United Kingdom is catching up. The 2012 London Olympics obviously provide the city with motivation to embrace a wide variety of sports, and London this fall has turned itself into a sports city. In addition to the NHL and NBA, the NFL will visit later this month for a regular-season game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. Stern placed London on the short list of candidates to host a regular-season NBA game, though it would likely happen after the Olympics.

"We would love it if the NBA had a successful week and decided to follow the example of the NHL and bring some real-season games here," said Phillip Beard, CEO of the O2. "The appetite amongst Londoners and people coming from around the UK to the game is huge. We sold out every ticket within weeks of it being announced."

Beard, who lived in Back Bay for three years in the early 1990s, has a familiarity with NBA basketball uncommon for an Englishman. He saw Larry Bird's last game at the Garden, and once naively purchased an obstructed view seat believing he would still have some view of the court. Beard said it was "fantastic" to see Minnesota vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale and Boston general manager Danny Ainge wandering around the O2 and London, though he knows many attending the game might be at a loss as to who Kevin Garnett is and what it means for him to play his former team.

"What they'll know is that basketball is a very, very exciting game," said Beard. "Once they've been here and seen it, it will do a lot for the NBA in Europe. If the NBA coming in this week gets more people more interested in basketball, so when Team GB [Great Britain] plays, more people follow the results, that can only be good for everybody."

American investment

That is precisely the idea behind the Celtics and three other teams touring the continent as part of Europe Live 2007.

While the Boston-Minnesota game cannot compete for coverage this week in London with the English rugby team preparing for a semifinal match in the World Cup or with soccer any time of year, the fact that AEG financed the O2 for roughly $700 million shows its faith in the future of American sports in Europe. That said, Stern cannot yet fathom a group of investors paying $500 million for a European expansion franchise.

"It's not all about the buildings," said Stern. "You need four things - buildings, fan affinity, television rights, and a pricing structure that ensures teams can compete for talent. If you have all of those, you're on a good path. We think we're on a good path. We have the buildings, we've identified broadcasters. We're here to build up affinity, and you continue to watch the pricing structure to see how much a ticket costs. You can charge more and make more money with a team if you have it in the O2, as opposed to some of the gymnasiums that currently house teams [around Europe]."

So, what waits at the end of the path? Stern recalled a plan proposed by a Spanish NBA fan. It called for the creation of a five-team European Division. One year, the European Division would play in the Eastern Conference. The next year, it would play in the Western Conference. Teams based in the United States would fly to Europe once a season and play each team twice during a two-week trip.

"Do we have a plan in the drawer for that?" said Stern. "No, but it's sort of interesting."

Stern added that he does not have a "grand plan" for the future of the NBA in Europe. Still, with almost the entire New York league office seemingly decamped in hotels on the Europe Live itinerary, there has been a strong investment of manpower abroad. That would seem to indicate at least the intention of having a more permanent NBA presence in Europe.

While efforts to increase interest in Europe have been accelerated, Stern emphasizes that Europe Live is the product of a 20-year evolution that started when Milwaukee hosted the first McDonald's Championship in 1987. At that event, the NBA actively pursued relationships with FIBA and the rest of the international basketball community.

"A long time ago, it became clear, as it has with every major corporation, that there is this world we're a part of and increasingly not the center of," said Stern. "One of the things that travels very well is basketball.

"We think that being in Europe, whether it's a tour or a precursor, is fundamentally important. It pays to develop young fans who will buy products, watch games, and play the game. If two out of every 10 kids bounce a ball rather than kick it and you can add one, you've increased your business."

But it is not always about business. At least tonight at the O2, it will be about the game, the arena, and potentially something much bigger.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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