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NBA flexes its global reach at Disney World

Daniel Roberts

On Monday, Disney and the National Basketball Association opened “NBA Experience” at Walt Disney World outside Orlando, Fla. It’s a two-floor, 44,000-square-foot “immersive venue” that is part activity center, part exhibition, part merchandise store. Price of entry is $34 for adults, $29 for kids.

It is not the kind of physical space you could imagine the National Football League or Major League Baseball launching right now. (In 1999, Disney World opened an NFL Experience that has long since closed.)

While MLB struggles with diminishing ballpark attendance, and NFL viewership just last season bounced back after two seasons of declines, the NBA’s regular season ratings last season were flat compared to the year before and up 5% from two years before. The 2019 NBA Finals ratings fell in the U.S., but it was the most-watched Finals ever in Canada.

In 2016 the NBA announced a long-term partnership with Tencent to promote the game in China. The NBA Summer League this year in Las Vegas featured a team from China and, for the first time, a team from Croatia. In 2020, the NBA will hold a regular season game in Paris.

All of this is why the NBA frequently gets called the most global U.S. sports league of the moment. (NHL fans might beg to differ.) Last season, the NBA had 108 international players from 42 different countries or territories, tying its own record.

Opening a permanent paean to the NBA at Disney World, where more than 20% of annual visitors are from outside the U.S., is the latest step in the NBA’s global push.

NBA fans test their skills at NBA Experience at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo: Steven Diaz)
NBA fans test their skills at NBA Experience at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo: Steven Diaz)

Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver were on hand to cut the ribbon on the NBA Experience, along with current players including Victor Oladipo and Brook Lopez, newly retired star Dwyane Wade, Hall of Famers including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Grant Hill, and WNBA veteran Swin Cash.

The venue has 13 different physical activities, including skills tests for dribbling and shooting, and a mockup NBA locker room and tunnel. Disney World closed the arcade venue DisneyQuest in 2017 to clear the space for NBA Experience.

“We had this longstanding relationship with Disney, and we had enough content in our archive to program something of this scale,” says Sal LaRocca, the NBA’s president of global partnerships. “This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world—yet. But we’re having conversations about what this might look like at other Disney properties, probably outside the U.S.”

In addition to being a testament to the NBA’s global fanbase, opening a permanent installation of this size is a sign that the NBA and Disney are betting NBA interest is high all year round—not just during the NBA season.

“We’ve almost become a 12-month-a-year sport,” says LaRocca. “Obviously in order to have an experience like this, where you’re open every day, that will overlap with days where we are not in season. But the popularity of the sport has never been bigger than it is now, the number of international players has never been higher. So Disney thought a branded NBA experience could appeal to a global visitor, and could appeal to people 12 months a year.”

For Disney, the NBA Experience might help diversify its park offerings after visitors to domestic parks and resorts decreased last quarter.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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