I Got Next: Victor Wembanyama and the NBA
The recent announcement that the San Antonio Spurs had won the NBA Draft lottery was greeted with cheers locally, but plenty of analysis, as befits the potential prize on offer. Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, a 7’4″ star in his home country, is the kind of positionless wonder who has thrilled NBA scouts in what they’ve seen of him, and looks to be a mold-breaking generational talent on the order of LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With that in mind, we present an analysis that examines his potential effect on the way the sport is consumed in the United States in a number of ways, both on and off the court.
A third option?
Since the advent of professional basketball in the 1940s, in the United States, fans were likely to follow one of two competitions. The NBA, with its flair, fast pace, and a global consortium of superstars has long been the most alluring. What college basketball lacks in those departments, it more than makes up for in narrative, though. The NCAA’s March Madness tournament is followed by even the most casual fans. But could Wembanyama’s arrival herald increased popularity for a third tournament?
European-based sports have continued to grow in popularity in the United States of late. We’ve seen huge increases in the followings of football, Formula 1, and even Roland-Garros. The EuroLeague also gained a Wembanyama-based boost in the fall when its games were shown on a limited basis. Now, given the success of that experiment, ESPN has agreed to add the competition to its streaming packages, with even the NBA itself getting in on the act:
#NBADraft prospect Victor Wembanyama put up 21 PTS and 14 REB in Game 2 against Cholet 💪 pic.twitter.com/SunT9kj9hS
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
A lone streaming outlet hardly means the EuroLeague is ready to compete toe-to-toe with domestic basketball. But it does represent an increased appetite on the part of American fans to have a taste of what’s next in the world of sports. Other players, like Tony Parker and Antetokounmpo have impressed after coming to the NBA from Europe. But neither arrived with the hype surrounding Wembanyama; fans will be looking to see who can follow him.
All eyes on the draft
ESPN has also benefited from the hype around Wembanyama as regards its broadcast of the draft. Recent rule changes have given more teams an equal chance of winning top spot in the draft, and the network reported its best ratings since 2019, and the fifth-best overall. Nearly 3.3M fans tuned in, representing a 50% jump over last year, and underscoring the excitement around the young Frenchman.
An ever-expanding global audience
More importantly, many have been quick to note that the Spurs have built their reputation under Gregg Popovich around foreign talent. Parker is the most obvious example, but Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter also played important roles in some of the team’s titles. This history, especially with French players, is a key component of the excitement around Wembanyama’s arrival.
The Spurs are clearly seen as a skilled incubator of foreign talent, and while they have struggled in recent seasons since the retirements of Ginobili, Parker, and Tim Duncan, they are still led by the same coach and general manager tandem in Popovich and RC Buford that has already won five titles.
By the same token, the already exploding popularity of Wembanyama internationally can help to grow the game overseas. This is already happening apace with the popularity of a host of international players — nearly a third of the players at this year’s All-Star Game are foreign-born, but none come from a media market the size of France.
To add Europe’s fourth-largest population (and the world’s seventh-largest economy) to its audience is no small matter for the league. In addition to the potential growth of television audiences, the continued potential around staging games in the country, as well as commercial deals, has the chance to be as game-changing as Wembanyama himself.