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Victor Wembanyama, Paris and the NBA: The story of France’s unlikely love affair with basketball

Chris Byfield

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Victor Wembanyama, Paris and the NBA: The story of France’s unlikely love affair with basketball

Paris is often stereotyped. Its name alone may conjure an image of the Eiffel Tower or Mona Lisa, the glamour of a high-end fashion brand or a cautionary tale of state-run football clubs.

One may think of a Paris-Brest or mille-feuille; an aloof, disinterested waiter or paint the place with a romantic ‘City of Love’ veneer. Yes, there is always a promise of romance in Paris. Whether it’s Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa, or Before Sunset’s Jesse and Celine, a Hollywood-style love affair is as synonymous to the French capital as a strike.

And two weeks ago, on one of January’s crispest days, the city reprised the role of matchmaker as France’s blossoming love affair with the NBA played out at the Bercy Arena, where the Brooklyn Nets took on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

People really care about the NBA here. A Beatlemania-like fanaticism was displayed by a younger contingent of supporters at the NBA House, a pop-up event that pre-empted the Nets and Cavs’ game.

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A French boy proclaimed utter amazement upon taking a selfie with social media influencer Ronnie ‘2K’ Singh. A teenage girl was in tears at the mere sight of WNBA sharp-shooter and 2K24 cover star Sabrina Ionescu. Tony Parker’s surprise entrance was met with a swirling mass of supporters, all battling for a glimpse of the six-time NBA All-Star.

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“I’ve heard so much about how Paris fans are just enamoured with basketball and how the culture here is so strong,” New York Liberty’s Ionescu said. “To come here and see it first hand, it lives up to the hype. The fans are awesome.”

And beyond empirical evidence, numbers also point to a country enamoured by the sport. NBA has 3.8 million French followers across all social media platforms, alongside increases in NBA League Pass subscriptions and NBA game TV viewership by 19 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. The league also has 22 overall marketing partners in France - among the most soulless of metrics but one that matters to people in boardrooms.

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Europe and Middle East Vice President, Global Partnerships Dina Ahmad told SPORTbible: “France is a really key market for the NBA.

“It’s a market where we’ve been really encouraged by the growth of our fan base. If we look across all metrics from social media, to TV viewership to interactions on the NBA League Pass on our app, the growth that we’ve seen over the past year in particular has been immense.”

But why? Few laypeople in Europe would align the ‘City of Light’ with basketball. After all, the French capital lends its name to Paris Saint-Germain, one of the richest and best-supported football clubs in the world, while its famed Banlieue suburb boasts the sport’s most fruitful conveyor belt of talent.

But in recent years basketball has firmly entrenched itself as the city’s second sport.

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Wembanyama looks set to become basketball's next superstar (Getty)
Wembanyama looks set to become basketball's next superstar (Getty)

The aforementioned Parker’s rise from the French Basketball League to four NBA Championships first spawned the country’s interest in the sport, while the much-publicised emergence of Victor ‘Wemby’ Wembanyama has elevated said interest into mainstream fanaticism.

Indeed, Paris now boasts a claim to the sport’s next superstar; a No.1 draft pick with impeccable ball-handling, astounding athleticism and a shooting touch.

And with Wembanyama’s compatriots, 7-foot-1 Alexandre Sarr and 6-foot-8 Zaccharie Risacher, both expected to be among the first picks in the 2024 draft, France appears to have become a fecund source of NBA talent.

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Of course, elite players alone are not a potent enough promotional tool given the six-hour time difference between Paris and the US East Coast. Essentially, if you live in Europe and like your eight hours you’re unlikely to be convinced by the merits of watching live NBA games.

That’s where the value of 2K comes into play. Ronnie 2K, the immaculately dressed and aptly named face of the franchise, described the video game as a didactic tool for far-away audiences.

Ronnie told SPORTbible: “2K has been an educational device. It’s been quoted by [American TV personality] Mark Cuban and a lot of the players that they learn about basketball through the video game.

“We’re focused on leveraging 2K as an educational device, especially for their international regions where they’re maybe less knowledgeable on the sport. How can we, within the facility of the game, provide that information?”

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The alchemy of superstar representation and the accessibility provided by 2K has transformed fluttering curiosity into genuine fandom in Paris.

But there is still a way to go.

On January 11, as if passing a torch, Paris’ most famous son, Kylian Mbappe, watched from courtside as the Cavs held off a late flurry from the Nets to claim a 111-102 victory.

But what promised to be a rousing, cathartic affair was in fact, predictable and largely stale.

The outcome felt like a foregone conclusion - the Cavs were in form, the Nets were not. There was also a scarcity of star power on display. While Donovan Mitchell’s electric 45-point showing triggered ironic chants of ‘MVP’, the game lacked a poster boy - a Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Nikola Jokić, a Wemby.

Beckham and Ronaldo drew the biggest reception of the night (Getty)
Beckham and Ronaldo drew the biggest reception of the night (Getty)

Despite the best efforts of Cavs mascot Moondog, one colleague likened the first half noise to a “cemetery”. (Yes, even a big anthropomorphic dog banging a drum could not stir the spirits of the French, a people that in the Sixties made it cool to be brooding, mysterious and nihilistic. I bet Jean-Paul Sartre hated big, drumming dogs.)

Among the 15,000 spectators were David Beckham and Ronaldo O Fenômeno, footballing royalty who when cast upon the big screen drew the biggest cheer of the night. It served as a stark reminder of which sport still reigns supreme in Paris.

While it’s a small sample size, not representative of a non-partisan crowd’s relationship with the sport as a whole, the atmosphere at the Bercy Arena suggests there is still progress to be made.

Opportunities to seize such progress will no doubt present themselves. Paris is set to host the Olympics in the summer, while NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted we will most likely see another regular-season trip to the French capital - perhaps this time featuring multiple games.

"In terms of the efficiency, given the scope of the operation bringing two teams over here, we've had conversations with teams that, once they're here, would they potentially play a second game against each other before returning to the States?" Silver said. "And that's something we're looking at, potentially even for next season."

Featured Image Credit: Getty

Topics: NBA

Chris Byfield
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