In Con​versation: What You Need to Know About Africa’s First Professional Basketball League, the BAL

John Manyo-Plange

Photo courtesy of the NBA

In Con​versation: What You Need to Know About Africa’s First Professional Basketball League, the BAL

We talked to John Manyo-Plange, Vice President of BAL, the NBA's new league in Africa.

In February, the National Basketball Association announced the launch of the Basketball Africa League, or BAL, their first professional basketball league outside North America. The launch of a league in Africa comes at a time when African talent is flourishing in the NBA, both on the court and in the front office.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-Nigerian, won the Most Valuable Player award last season, while Masai Ujiri, an English-born Nigerian, built the Raptors team that won the title last year. On that Raptors team were also, Pascal Siakam, a Cameroonian, and Serge Ibaka, a Congolese man.

In August, John Manyo-Plange was announced as the Vice President & Head of Strategy and Operations for the BAL. Manyo has been working with the NBA for almost a decade to popularize basketball across the continent of Africa. He helped launch the NBA Africa office in South Africa in 2010, and before that he spent 14 years in the New York office of the NBA, holding various positions management positions.

The BAL will begin play in 2020, and we recently got a chance to talk to Manyo about ambitions for the league, as well as some of the difficulties that have come from launching such a grand project.

Read on for our interview with the the Vice President of BAL below.

What difficulties did you encounter in setting the BAL?

I think it's too early to say what all of those difficulties are, since we're still in the process of building the league now, setting up infrastructure. That whole process is going on as we speak. But, to get to the point of where we could bring it to fruition, we first had to build the foundation for the sport on the continent.

We launched NBA Africa in 2010. We focused on the fundamentals of the sport—getting as many kids playing the game as possible. We launched our junior NBA program, which is now in 14 countries across the continent, and we're looking to expand to about 20 by the middle of next year. That has been our focus, and we've had our Basketball Without Borders program, and we now have the academies as well, based in Senegal.

The bottom part of the experiment has been filled out, now we need to focus on the elite level of the sport. What really spurred us to do that, and I'll use a story to show as an example, we had a Basketball Without Borders camp some years ago and an Egyptian kid asked, "What happens to those of us who don't make it?" What that meant to us was that African kids are growing up, not feeling that there's a pathway for success to stay on the continent and play high-level basketball. We felt it was important to develop that infrastructure here, where an African kid can dream of being successful by staying here.

What is interesting is that this league seems to be coming at a time when some of the best players in the NBA are African. How important do you think it is that players like Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo routinely visit and show kids in Africa that their dreams are achievable?

It's critical, because kids have to have role models to look up to. To have the MVP of the league be Nigerian, to have four players from the continent on the Raptors, to have the head of global scouting for the Raptors, Patrick Engelbrecht, be from South Africa, to have the assistant coach, Patrick Mutombo, be Congolese, to have the President of the team be, Masai Ujiri, who is Nigerian and Kenyan, that itself encapsulates for us the potential the continent has. Not just on the court but the strategy, the operations behind the teams as well.

Did having so many prominent Africans in the league play into the timing of announcing this league?

I think all of those things coming together is happening by happenstance. We've been at this for quite a while. We've been building this for 10 years at least. It's really been the hard work and the slog of building the foundation, and now we have a chance where things are all coming together at the same time.

African-born players like Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, pictured above, have an increasing presence in a globalized NBA. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

How important do you think such a league is for the continent? As a Nigerian myself, I know most of the continent is still much in love with football/soccer, but now here you have basketball, which is a different gateway to success through sports. How important do you think this opportunity will be in terms of offering another way for athletic achievement?

It's huge. It exemplifies the incredible amount of talent we have in the continent. When we talk about our natural resources, yes we have gold, diamonds, timber, but at the end of the day, the natural resource that we should be most proud of is our people. The breadth, the diversity, the power, the intelligence. I feel like we haven't historically been able to provide a platform and opportunities for those qualities to be showcased at a global stage. I think we have proven that we can compete and excel against the best in the world. For me, that's what this means for the continent.

I think we should really expand the breadth of things African kids can dream about. It's not just about football now, it's about anything and everything. That also translates to not just what happens on the court, but the business of sports and entertainment itself. This is about how we can use the core product, the sport itself, and use that to drive economies.

One particular interesting thing is the tournament format for the league, which is like the Champions League. What was the thinking behind that? To have 12 teams from different African countries, no more than two teams from a single country.

It would have been very easy for us to create franchises. But we made a decision that it was most practical for the survival for the ecosystem of basketball here in the continent for us to start with a Champions League format. The reason is that if you start with the franchise model immediately, all the money, energy, and attention flows to the top. What we wanted to do is to use the BAL as a developmental league for the ecosystem for the continent. We're going to invest in training for the players, coaches, referees. We're going to work with FIBA to help improve every aspect of the game. Now, over time this could then result in fully owned franchises.

Since you're following that Champions League tournament format, does that mean that the Final will be in a different country every year?

It's possible. We announced recently that the finals of this inaugural year is going to be in Kigali and the reason why is that we had an engagement with president Kagame, about a year ago. With Amadou Gallo Fall and Masai Ujiri we went and had a meeting with him where we talked about the benefits of infrastructure and development and how we felt our sport can help drive that. In 11 months, he built a 10,000 seat indoor stadium.

So that is a conversation that we're having with lots of African governments to say that there's a whole industry here that's underdeveloped and we're here to use the power of our brand, celebrity of our players and know-how, to help drive it.

What is the ambition in terms of marketing for this league?

The key here is to create a lifestyle product around the game itself. Adam Silver has been very clear about it. When we were in Senegal and made the last batch of announcements, he confidently said that our goal is to be the number one lifestyle brand on the continent in the next ten years. That tells you that basketball is a key part of that, but as you know, the sport comes with a culture. It comes with music, fashion, all the cool things that young people like and want to be associated with, is part of the basketball culture. That's how we feel the marketing of the league is going to be successful. Yes, you focus on the sport itself to make sure it's an elite product, to make sure it's high-priority and high-standard, but around it, you create a showcase.

What is your grand vision for this league? In the most ideal world, what does the BAL become?

We feel that in the next five years, the BAL is going to be the number two basketball league globally. We have high aspirations for what this is going to become. As the average fan of the sport, when you experience basketball on the continent currently, and then the NBA and the BAL come in town, and then you experience what we put on, and all the activities around it, there's going to be a marked difference between the two. If we don't achieve that, then we've done something wrong. The talent is here. All the raw materials are here. We now have to package it properly.

Photo courtesy of the NBA

What's the level of excitement that you've witnessed from the different countries that will be involved in the BAL?

Just to give you an example. You know there will be 12 teams in the inaugural year. Six of the countries have been chosen. The teams themselves have not been confirmed from the six countries. The other six slots where we don't know which countries the teams will come from, there are currently 40 countries that are going to compete for those six slots. That gives you an indication that there's truly a hunger for this, and we're looking forward to having all of those countries participate.

Part of that participation too, is that will help drive the quality of basketball from an organizational standpoint, from a business standpoint, across the continent. If everybody wants to be in the same place, if 40 countries are vying to compete for the six slots, we want it to be a race to the top, as opposed to a race to the bottom.

Senegal recently held the Africa Women's Basketball Championship and it was a very popular event. There seems to be a big hunger for women's basketball. In the future of the BAL, could we see a women's version of it happening?

This is one thing we constantly talk about. You can see with the rebrand of the WNBA that women's basketball is a priority. Adam has made it a point that we need to make sure the women's league, first, is a success. Before starting another one internationally, we need to make sure we figure out the one that's homegrown first in the US. That is an ongoing process, but as a goal, that is always there.

From a development standpoint, we have our academy and our camps, clinics, and our junior NBA programs, are coed. In general, our ethos and our values say that we cannot grow our business by ignoring half of the population.