Mark Tatum has been the Deputy Commissioner and COO of the NBA for five years. I had an opportunity to catch up with him at the NBA’s 68th All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Tatum discussed how much the league has grown internationally, its plans for Africa, and why eSports will continue to expand. He also weighed in on how legalized sports gambling is changing the game and answered a few of my rapid-fire questions.
Q: This is the most “international” NBA All-Star game in history! There are a record 18 international players from 14 countries participating this weekend, and Team Giannis has five of the record seven international players in the 68th NBA All-Star Game. What does that say about global growth in the league?
A: First of all, it says that this is the league where the best players in the world can come play basketball. Second of all, it shows the development of these players, because now we're up to 25% of our players in the NBA are born outside the United States. But now, these record number of All-Stars and participants in All-Star weekend and the Rising Stars Challenge—we saw the next generation of All-Stars, guys like Ben Simmons for example, who had an incredible game. And, in the All-Star game as you mentioned seven all-stars, 18 throughout the weekend, so the level of talent from around the world continues to get greater and greater and they're having a bigger impact on our league today than they ever have.
Q: You broke some big news yesterday, announcing the Basketball Africa League (BAL)—why Africa and why now?
A: Absolutely, so we just announced that the NBA and FIBA are jointly working together and launching the first-ever Pan African basketball league, called the Basketball Africa League. This is a collaboration to really grow the game of basketball in the continent. A lot of people don't realize it, but Africa has six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. It's an incredibly young population and basketball is very very popular there. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo whose parents were Nigerian. He came through Greece, but his parents were raised and born in Nigeria. Joel Embiid is from Cameroon. So, there is a long history of African players who play in our league. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Hall of Fame players. So this is the next step in the development of the game on the continent of Africa.
Q: Will there be more than one game in London this year? And, what are your plans for international games?
A: The game in London has been fantastic and that game sells out in less than an hour. The demand is there the facility the 02 facility is one the nicest arenas in the entire world. So, London is a great place to go play and our teams love it. We're constantly looking at it - should we be doing more games in Europe and other places around the world. There are some other places too like France where basketball is incredibly popular. And, so that's an area where we're looking at too so no plans yet, nothing's been announced yet for next season, but I can tell you that we will be playing regular season games in Europe next year and continuing that tradition.
Q: Will we see an NBA all-star game in the near future overseas?
A: It's a good question. I would never say never. I would say nothing is planned in the foreseeable future. We actually have our All-Star games planned out pretty far out. There's such demand, certainly overseas, but there's demand from our NBA teams to host the All-Star game as well. Just being here in Charlotte, for example, you see the attention that the city gets, you see the opportunity for a city to showcase its city through the All-Star game and put the eyes of the world on that city. Our teams want to do that, and our teams enjoy hosting other teams in the market. Here, Michael Jordan has been an unbelievable host along with Fred Whitfield, the president of the Charlotte Hornets, and the rest of the Hornets organization. I would say we obviously played the All-Star game in Toronto, so we have played one outside the United States recently, but in terms of overseas it's something that we're looking at but nothing right now that I would say is on the definitive short-term horizon.
And, the economic impact too. It really becomes the center place of basketball for a week and the entire global basketball community tunes in and comes to Charlotte. The government figures have estimated that there's some hundred million dollars of economic impact and positive benefit just from people coming into the city spending money and investing. And, for a lot of people I've spoken to, this is their first time in Charlotte. They come here, and they experience it, they go back, and they say you know what Charlotte's a pretty cool city so it's a great marketing opportunity for NBA cities as well
Q: How did the inaugural NBA 2K League go, and how will season two be different?
A: The inaugural NBA 2K season was amazing. We started this league from scratch with 17 teams, and the Knicks 2k Team actually ended up winning the final championship in the final tournament. Next year, we are even more excited. We have 21 teams, so four new teams coming into the NBA 2K League. We actually just held our first ever international tryout, so I think you're going to see many more international gamers being drafted and selected onto NBA 2K league teams. Those are some of the new changes that we're going to see but it has surpassed our expectations in terms of interest.
Q: What's the future of eSports?
A: The future of eSports is large. I think you're going to see potentially international teams. There is no reason that we can't have a team from Beijing or Paris or Rio play against a team from New York or LA or Chicago. Continuing to sell out arenas and venues, continuing to be broadcast on different platforms like Twitch—all of those things are going to continue to grow and grow.
Q: How about sports gambling? Should kids start learning about the over/under now?
A: Kids shouldn't! I would say there is no doubt that more and more states now have adopted policies to make it legal to bet on sports that is going to continue to grow and grow. I do think that when adults who are legally allowed to bet, when they are able to bet on sports, they are more engaged in the sport. But until you are of legal age, I think you should enjoy the game, have fun, and obviously things like fantasy are available out there. A lot of kids participate in fantasy sports and I think that's a great way to consume sports if you're a kid.
Q: Finally, I normally do Rapid-Fire with NBA athletes, so I thought it would be fun to do it with you. Alright, here we go:
Favorite nickname? Hoover
Best video game? NBA 2K
Favorite rapper? Drake
Name one thing you wish people knew about you, but they don't? I'm a pretty good bowler
Who is the GOAT of basketball? There is no right answer for that!
Down by two, 10 seconds left, the ball is in your hands what's your go-to move? Fadeaway jumper
Attitude or technique which is more important? I would say that attitude is more important if you believe that you can win