When new NBA Commisioner Adam Silver stated last month his hopes to have the NBA one day catch up to the NFL in popularity in the U.S., more than a few Americans—judging by comments here, here, here, and many more—laughed at the notion.
While I myself share that skepticism about pro basketball catching America's favorite sport, the NBA is successful doing what the NFL has so far been unable to do: make significant inroads into the global market. This is especially true of China, the world’s fastest growing economy, which has everyone from Hollywood to Facebook trying to gain a foothold.
But while the NBA has done an impressive job of appealing to the markets of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, and India, it is what they've done in South Korea that’s the most interesting and fun. The league inked a partnership deal with MK Trend, a South Korean retailer with 56 stores across the country—and, in a rare move, gave the company permission to alter NBA team colors and add all sorts of funky designs to league merchandise.
The reason? If you've seen K-Pop videos, you might have noticed that K-Pop stars have a particular sense of fashion, one that’s heavy on bling and bright colors.
So while team colors are sacred for Americans – a Bostonian would flip if he or she saw a Celtics hat in purple and gold – South Koreans just want what looks cool, and MK Trend’s flashy NBA gear has proven so popular that even K-Pop stars wear them. And since South Korean pop culture is highly influential and popular throughout Asia (and, as has been written many times in recent years, in the U.S. too), the league’s decision to let a South Korean company commit what would be a sin in U.S. sports culture has resulted in increased brand exposure.
Seriously, you can’t go a day in Seoul without encountering the above Girl’s Generation billboard or seeing NBA products on television:
MK Trend’s CEO Michael Kim told me that Japanese and Chinese tourists will often visit his stores with photos of K-Pop stars in NBA gear, requesting the same hat or jacket—and one can only assume that will occur with greater regularity after MK Trend has opened its planned stores in China, Hong Kong, and Macau this year. So, while it's unlikely that the NBA will catch the NFL in the U.S., owning the Asian market isn't a bad consolation prize.