Impact Of The NBA’s Basketball Africa League Is Already Bearing Fruit

City Oilers team|FIBA IMAGE

BAL 2024 Impact Of The NBA’s Basketball Africa League Is Already Bearing Fruit

Esfandiar Baraheni (Forbes) • 15:32 - 09.04.2024

The NBA has worked for decades throughout Africa, with Basketball Without Borders and NBA Academy, and the natural ‘next’ step was to bring a full-fledged, sustainable league spanning across the continent.

When the NBA announced the Basketball Africa League, or BAL, five years ago, on the surface level, it seemed like a rather ambitious plan. But when you look at the history of basketball on the continent, and the work the league has done to establish its roots there, it made perfect sense.

The NBA has worked for decades throughout Africa, with Basketball Without Borders and NBA Academy, and the natural ‘next’ step was to bring a full-fledged, sustainable league spanning across the continent.

City Oilers' Tony Drileba (BLUE) in action as they beat JBC for their second win|FIBA IMAGE

When I spoke to the President of the BAL, Amadou Gallo Fall, also known by the moniker “The Godfather of Basketball in Africa” – you could tell that the league was the culmination of a lifetime of work. Fall was one of the first boots on the ground when the NBA opened its first office on the continent in South Africa in 2010 as the then Vice President of NBA Africa before taking on his current role as President in May of 2019. His goal and vision the entire time has been one thing:

“I suppose it's about being more than just an exporter of talent, right?” Fall told me over the phone. “I think Africa as a whole, even in other sectors has been a place where they've been talking about the extractive industries – very little transformation that's been taking place. But with the vast amount of talent that remains, there is an opportunity to create a sports and entertainment product that the rest of the world is going to want to consume, pay to watch, travel to different African countries to visit, and use basketball as the convening power.”

In that sense, the league has already been a smashing success.

Now, with the fourth season underway, the BAL is already seeing the fruits of its labor and expanding. 12 club teams across 12 African countries will play a record 48 games for the first time in four different countries, the latest being South Africa, who will join Egypt, Senegal, and Rwanda as host nations for the games. The 2024 BAL season is reaching fans in 214 countries and territories in 17 languages through free-to-air and paid TV broadcast partnerships. Nearly 25,000 fans attended Kalahari Conference games, and the opening night and closing weekend games were sold out.

“The sports and entertainment sector contributes billions and billions to the GDPs of developed countries and I think Africa wants to participate in that vast economy,” Fall told me when I asked about the general economic impact of the league thus far. “We have the best talent, we feel, when it comes to the creative space in terms of sports, music, and fashion. You see how Afrobeat is resonating all around the world, we want to expand on that. That's why we're going to build an industry around basketball, music, and fashion, bringing all that together as an economic locomotive.”

Things have a way of working that way when something is growing in popularity. Living in Toronto, Canada my entire life, I’ve witnessed the rise of basketball in the city and country and the subcultures of fashion and music that it’s influenced. It’s not a coincidence that in the last decade, the Toronto Raptors won an NBA championship, Canadian basketball is as successful as ever and some of the best-selling artists in the world are Drake, Justin Bieber, and the Weeknd.

Mr Eazi's Cape Town Tigers against Petro de Luanda.

By that same token, It’s no coincidence that at the same time as Afrobeats became some of the most popular music in the world, some of the most talented basketball players in Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo, Giannis Antetokounmpo hailed from the continent, all while the countries in Africa continue to bolster better teams.

South Sudan’s Men’s basketball team, for example, made history just last year by becoming the youngest country to ever clinch a spot in the Olympics.

“What Loul Deng is doing in South Sudan is proof that with the right leadership, expertise, and commitment, you could do wonders in a country that didn't exist 12 years ago,” Fall said, citing Deng who has become the President of the Federation for his home country of South Sudan and a BAL ambassador since retiring from basketball. “I think just with the ecosystem that is growing, there will be more opportunities for players and young talent to participate in our game.”

The young talent is more than participating — they’re dominating.

For the third consecutive season, one roster spot on each BAL team is reserved for an NBA Academy Africa prospect as part of the Elevate program. The 17-year-old big man Khaman Malauch was part of the team that helped South Sudan make history, and is set to dominate in the BAL this season for the Uganda City Oilers before heading off to Duke next season to play in the NCAA for the Blue Devils. The same goes for Ulrich Chomche, the big man from Cameroon who will play his final season in the BAL with Rwanda’s APR.

I asked Fall if the goal with the Elevate Program is to hopefully have the BAL introduce the next great African NBA player and he pushed back on the idea, saying that naturally “any league could benefit from NBA-level talent” but that the main goal is to foster growth and interest of the sport across the continent while turning into “one of the best leagues in the world.”

Cultivating talent for Fall and the BAL expands far beyond the basketball court. He simply wants to use the sport and the league as a way to inspire the youth to build careers for themselves – whether that be on the court or off of it.

Al Ahly players celebrate lifting the BAL title /BAL image

For example, the BAL Future Pros program is a career development program for promising young African professionals who are interested in careers in sports. Just last year the program allowed multiple aspiring front-office members to work alongside executives with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

“We don’t want to just create basketball players, we want to create more Masai Ujiri’s right here,” Fall said when I noted that I covered the Raptors. “It's increasingly become a reality. Several young people from across the continent are following in those footsteps there with different organizations, and we're proud of all of them. And here on the continent, we want the teams to focus on what makes a basketball team successful to gain that experience here before venturing out.”

These programs, along with the infrastructure set up by the BAL and NBA Africa have allowed for a concerted effort to promote diversity, gender equality, and empowerment as well.

“It’s inscribed on the corner of our court, we say ‘Inspire, Empower and Elevate,” Fall said. “I mean we’re all about allowing and affording these young people, boys, and girls, to have the ambitions and to grow up with the values of the game of basketball, because we know how it teaches them to become better members of communities and societies.”

BAL4HER is the league’s platform for advancing gender equity in the African sports ecosystem and celebrating women in the sports industry who serve as role models to young women across the continent and according to Fall, 60% of the BAL staff is comprised of women.

In June of 1971, the NBA first stepped foot on the continent when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson conducted basketball clinics there. A little over 10 years later, Hakeem Olajuwon was selected number 1 overall in the 1984 draft. Olajuwon’s rise helped an influx of African players break that barrier – who then, in their own ways, continued to give back to their communities along with the NBA’s help. Then Fall, almost 30 years later established the NBA’s first office on the continent. Fast forward 14 years later, and the rise of basketball across Africa has created a self-sustaining industry that can be relied upon as a locomotive to promote several positive causes, from empowerment to justice, to the promotion of health and equity – the BAL now stands as beacon for nearly 50 years of work that the NBA has done to plant the seeds for what has blossomed.

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As for what comes next? Well, Fall wants to continue his and the BAL’s ambitious mission.

“The league is starting to become a destination. Not just for players, but for fans. We're seeing people traveling from all across the African diaspora in different countries to come to our game sites. And I think that's a big part of this whole thing. We want to continue to retain the top talent, but at the same time, attract top global talent from around the world. And to cultivate something sustainable.”

Well, in that regard, even in the adolescent stages of the league, it’s becoming obvious… they’re well on their way.