Battle of the Ballgames

Basketball has been on the brain recently. Between last month’s NBA-FIBA announcement of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and this month’s NCAA tournament kick-off, the sport is generating a lot of attention—especially the game’s global appeal. While I’ve written on several angles, including #hoopsdiplomacy, a recent re-read through Lou Antolihao’s “From Baseball Colony to Basketball Republic: post-colonial transition and the making of a national sport in the Philippines,” reignited a question: can basketball become the sport of the twenty-first century?  

Antolihao discusses the ‘Battle of the Ballgames’ that occurred in the Philippines, the clash of baseball versus basketball for the heart of the Filipino people. My world history students learned a lot from Antolihao’s explanation of how basketball became the Philippines’ national sport. Baseball was ultimately associated with the American occupation authorities, whereas basketball, though introduced by U.S. citizens (YMCA educators), never retained the same taint.   

I’ve argued in Made By History that basketball became the world’s second sport thanks in part to the game being played locally across the globe for more than a century. For millions worldwide, the ‘orange ball’ is not an American export in the same way as baseball or American football. It’s been adapted as part of the local culture, although that’s separate from the NBA, which is still perceived as an American cultural export.

The French and Chinese national basketball teams during Les Bleus’ July-August 1966 China trip. Photo from    Basket-Ball Magazine (Fédération Française de Basket-Ball), October 1966    No. 394 via Gallica.

The French and Chinese national basketball teams during Les Bleus’ July-August 1966 China trip. Photo from Basket-Ball Magazine (Fédération Française de Basket-Ball), October 1966 No. 394 via Gallica.

That helps to explain the many ‘whys’ of global hoops—including China’s #hoopsdiplomacy (long before ping-pong)—and what we’re witnessing today as businesses and communities are investing in the sport in record numbers.  

Which brings us to the battle of the twenty-first century ballgames. Looking at where the game is expanding (Africa, Asia), who is producing ever-more NCAA, WNBA, and NBA players (internationally, especially Europe, Asia, and Africa), and more, it seems clear that basketball is set to challenge football (soccer) for dominance; whether it can win over hearts and minds worldwide remains to be seen.

There’s surely something to be said for the potency of the FIFA World Cup and being part of that magical international community when your team (France) wins. Yet, as I tuck into NCAA tournaments, I can’t help but notice that many men’s and women’s teams contain an ever-greater mix of nationalities that auger well for the game’s continued globalization and rise. Football may be dominant now, but in 50 years, will it remain that way?