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Basketball and India

A deep insightful look at the NBA's successful Hindi commentary project in India

The NBA's Hindi Commentary team
(Akshay Manwani)

The 2018-19 season was the fourth year that the Sony Pictures Network via its multiple sports channels - Sony Ten 1/Sony ESPN/Sony Six - broadcasted nearly 14 regular-season games each week which is nearly 350 games over the course of the entire regular season.

It's a testament to the growth of basketball and the league in India.

Over the past few years, this growth has been seen across multiple fronts - setting up of the NBA Academy in Greater Noida in 2017, the ACG-NBA Jump program over the past four years, the Jr. NBA program (the 2018-19 program was the largest to date, reaching more than 6.5M youths from 7,900 schools across 34 cities), and notable NBA superstars like Kevin Durant and Harrison Barnes visiting the country to promote the sport.

One such front where the league has made a concentrated effort to broaden its fan base in the country has been the addition of Hindi Commentary to its live games broadcast.

"Our primary goal is to grow the game of basketball in India and reach new fans of the game," says Mairu Gupta, Sr. Director, Content & Media Distribution for NBA in India.

"Considering that Hindi is the most widely spoken language in the country, we decided to test with Conference Finals & Finals during the 2016-17 season."

Baby steps

The first-ever NBA contest to be distributed with Hindi commentary was Game 1 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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Akshay Manwani was one of four members of the Hindi commentary team.

"I think it was a historic moment in 2017 that the Conference Finals and Finals were distributed in Hindi. I can say very proudly that we actually covered Kevin Durant winning his first Finals MVP in the Hindi language," says Manwani.

The commentators were finalized after a rigorous selection and training program, one that included expert commentators, NBA fans and basketball players from India.

An NBA expert and currently serving as the Hindi commentary trainer and coordinator, Manwani further adds - "The other three members were coming from the world of Hindi commentary. They were commentators from across various sports. They had done a very quick training program and they managed to accept that challenge of having to do this for the very first time."

The historic move came with its own set of difficulties but everybody pulling together brought about positive results.

"The response was phenomenal with 23 million minutes of Hindi commentary being consumed across only the Conference Finals & Finals in the first year," said Gupta, giving the insights on the league's first-run with Hindi commentary.

Early Days of NBA broadcasting in India

The 2018-19 season was just the second full season that the league had distributed live games on both Saturday and Sunday with Hindi commentary.

That meant of the near 350 games, approximately 80 were also distributed in Hindi.

It's amazing to think how far distribution has come in a relatively short span given that close to a decade earlier, Indian NBA fans could only see four live games a week, broadcast only in English.

In a three-year period from 2010-2012, the NBA changed its Indian television broadcasting partners thrice.

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The musical chairs began with the league's long marriage to the ESPN-Star Sports (ESS) ending after the 2009-10 season. Then, in December 2010, the league went into a partnership with two channels to broadcast live NBA games - Sony Pix (Multi Screen Media (MSM) Private Ltd) and Ten Sports (Taj Television).

The new deal involved the broadcast of four live games per week. Not only did the deal include the broadcast of major annual league events like the NBA All-Star Weekend, the NBA Playoffs, and the NBA Finals, it also had in store weekly shows like Real NBA, NBA in 30, and NBA Action.

In 2012, the hands changed again, however, this time it was to a familiar face. Sony Six, Multi Screen Media's new sports channel, became the league's exclusive television broadcaster in India. In the new deal with Sony Six, the basketball fan in India would have access to at least three live games a week and a total of 72 games all through the regular season.

While the parent company for Sony Six might have changed names, the channel has remained the league's exclusive broadcast partner for live games in India. Just months after the new deal, then NBA Commissioner David Stern visited the country, marking the first-ever trip by the league's commissioner to the country.

According to a SLAM article during Stern's visit, the former commissioner hoped to achieve four things - the right scale of adoption of the sport at the school level, successful TV coverage, increased presence on digital and social platforms, and the establishment of a college league.

Six years since that visit, the NBA has successfully achieved three of those four aims. While a collegiate league hasn't been announced yet, the foundation of the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida does address the issue partially.

The NBA continued its push to bring live games to as many as Indian basketball fans as possible with an extension deal with Sony Six (MSM) prior to the 2015-16 season.

The landmark deal, for the first time ever, promised the broadcast of up to two live games each day of the week.

Overcoming challenges & building on the positive results

With the overwhelming success of their first go-around, the league was ready to ramp it and along with Sony Pictures Network was ready to air 100 live games with Hindi commentary for the 2017-18 season.

However, work still needed to be done. More games meant the margin of error would be greater and nobody had the excuse of rookie mistakes this time around. So, the expert was called in to better prepare the commentators, a group that had now grown to eight.

"One of the good things that the NBA did was, they flew down a gentleman by the name of Chris Denari," Manwani adds."He gave us a run-through of various plays and what kind of plays are popular. So, just helping the newcomers and the guys who had worked with us previously get familiar and reacquaint themselves with the game."

Denari is a long time play-by-commentator for the Indiana Pacers. He conducted a three-day event in Mumbai nearly a month before the 2017-18 regular season tipped-off.

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That's not all. To continue improving, the team got down to self-assessment. They held nearly three workshops during the 2018-19 regular season - one right at the start, one in January of 2019 as the All-Star break approached and one two-day training program right before the 2019 Playoffs.

"It's been a lengthy and at times grueling process, but all of the commentators have shown significant progress.

"The commentators understand the nuance. They are able to tell our viewers on television what is a player's free-throw percentage not just for the regular season but when we get into the playoffs, what is he averaging for that series and for the entire playoffs. That level of detailing has come now with these commentators." Manwani adds.

Being up to date with the sport's terminology is one thing. This venture is unique in the sense that none of these commentators are at the venue. They provided their insights from the confines of a studio in Mumbai.

"The challenge is that many times via the official broadcaster, whether that's ESPN/TNT or whichever network it is, we do not know what graphics are headed our way. The moment they come, our commentators now have been kind of trained to explain those stats."

Another unique aspect to this team is the lack of a distinction between a play-by-play/lead and a colour commentator.

"Everyone is supposed to talk NBA commentary."

Looking ahead

The Hindi commentary team has seen its workload increase each season since the project began in 2017.

Now, it's about diversity and continuing to push the envelope in order to further better the product.

"We'd like to have more diversity in the panel to include additional NBA fans and further representation from women (Neeti Rawat is currently the only woman on the panel)," Mairu Gupta tells us. "Our goal is to curate the optimal game telecast for our fans across both audio and video mediums. We will continue to test new ideas in this regard."

For Manwani and the commentary team, even though the roster scale-up would help with an increase in the volume of games, the quality of the content is what matters.

"You need to have a roster that can be interchangeable. Nobody should be more or less. I shouldn't give my viewer the experience that - oh this commentator's knowledge is lacking in any way. No, it has to be all scaled up." Manwani, the Hindi commentary team's coordinator, concluded.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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