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NBA woos a world audience

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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Tip-off for game three of the NBA Finals was moments away, and Ya Chin Chang, correspondent for NBA.com/china, positioned herself on the storied parquet floor. Her cameraman followed with a 25-pound computer strapped to his back to stream the pregame show live on the Internet to millions of viewers in China.

As TD Garden rocked, the smiling 25-year-old shouted in Mandarin into her microphone: “Welcome to the NBA 2010 Finals. We’re at Game 3 and we’re coming at you live from Boston!’’

Chang is on the front lines of the league’s push to showcase the thrill of basketball and the legendary Celtics-Lakers rivalry to a rapidly growing international audience.

For the first time, the finals are being broadcast live in theaters across Mexico. A crew from India is in Boston filming a miniseries with behind-the-scenes footage. African fans are getting the games free through a new TV partnership with the NBA. And the NBA is updating the games online in Arabic and Hindi on new websites.

The mobile camera technology, known as LiveU, that Chang is using to broadcast online to China is also being shared with German media to report live outside the Garden, courtside, and even in the locker room.

“There is huge potential in the international market,’’ said Matthew J. Brabants, the NBA’s vice president of business operations for global media distribution, as he stood inside the World Feed Truck, a trailer parked next to the Garden emblazoned with a sign: “Keeping the world happy, one country at a time, one game at a time.’’

“We’re not trying to take on cricket,’’ Brabants said. “But if we could be a strong number two in a country like India with more than a billion people, well, that’s a pretty great feat.’’

Tough economic times in the United States have made it increasingly important for sports leagues, including Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, to look beyond the United States for growth. During the recession, some revenue eroded as teams held down ticket prices, and average attendance at NBA games was down about 2 percent.

Efforts to court consumers abroad appear to be working. International sales make up 35 percent of the NBA’s overall merchandise business, and are expected to soar another 30 percent this year. More than half of NBA.com's traffic is from outside America — more than for any other sports league — and NBA.com/china is averaging 7.5 million page views during the finals, about one-third of all traffic to NBA.com.

And so the finals have become a global affair, with coverage broadcast live to more international stations, websites, and other channels than ever in 215 countries and territories and in 41 languages.

Sitting outside the Garden before Tuesday night’s game, taxi driver Barry Asomugha talked about how his friends and family in Nigeria would be glued to Game 3 all night.

“It could be midnight or 2 in the morning,’’ said Asomugha, 41, who lives in Brockton. “But they’re up and watching it.’’

Looking to capitalize on the growing interest in Africa, the NBA opened its first office in Johannesburg last month to develop grass-roots basketball events and expand NBA partnerships with marketing, media, and consumer product companies. The league plans to set up offices in India, Russia, and Brazil by the end of the year.

David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said new technologies to stream games live over the Internet, into movie theaters, and on mobile devices have made it far easier for the NBA to reach consumers all over the world with customized programs.

“The real upside over time is to truly turn the NBA into a global league,’’ Carter said.

At halftime, the pace picked up inside the World Feed Truck, where a crew of 45 created a special production for the international channels that do not air domestic commercials and local analysis. Staring at 18 television screens, Tim Kane, the NBA’s senior director of broadcasting and international production, shouted out directions like “Feature Bucket Boys’’ and “Top Ten 1985 Celtics-Lakers’’ and “Back to wide shot’’ of the Garden.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the press box, Hemant Buch worked on ideas for the three-part miniseries he is helping to produce for Ten Sports, an Indian sports channel. The shows will offer an education on the finals, the teams, and the fans as the NBA attempts to make inroads there; in March, it launched a multicity recreational basketball league in partnership with a major automotive company.

Earlier on Tuesday, Buch hit Boylston Street and the Shops at Prudential Center to interview a sea of fans wearing Celtics jerseys and “Beat LA’’ T-shirts as part of a segment explaining the fierce rivalry between the Lakers and the Green Team.

“Celtics fans are a bit more intense. And the fans hate each other,’’ Buch said. “It always makes for a good spectacle.’’

As the game ended, Chang, of NBA.com/china, was back on her feet, bolting to the Lakers locker room. Beads of sweat were dripping down cameraman Adam Mory, after he returned from a courtside wrap-up with the German media. An intern tried to recharge the computer’s battery as his bulky backpack hit other journalists. After almost a dozen attempts, Chang managed to slip in questions to Lakers players Shannon Brown and Luke Walton. She swiftly moved to the corner and translated the interviews into Mandarin on camera for the fans in China and promised more coverage of Game 4.

“I can get the fans right here on the court live and in the locker rooms with the players,’’ Chang said. “You can’t beat that.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Ann Silvio of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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