With broadcasts over the decades on ESPN/Star, Ten Networks, and most-recently, Sony SIX, NBA fans in India have become relatively familiar with the voices behind the NBA. The English commentary featuring the voices of Marv Albert and Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen and Kevin Harlan, Doris Burke and Mark Jackson, and a personal favourite - Walt Frazier - have become as legendary as the biggest moments in the game itself. The commentary has played along as the NBA's perfect soundtrack, providing fans in India (and around the world) the perfect language of basketball expression.
At a conference in Mumbai organised by Asian-pacific digital broadcasting association CASBAA, NBA India's Managing Director Yannick Colaco mentioned that the NBA was very close to featuring Hindi commentary during Sony SIX broadcasts of live games in India.
Speaking at the CASBAA OTT summit in Mumbai, NBA India executive Yannick Colaco said that, since audio was very important for sports content, they were actively looking at going regional. "We are already having the audio for 600 games in Chinese," he stressed, adding that, in three months, NBA planned to have its games commentary in Hindi as well.
The NBA's decision follows a familiar blueprint pursued by the English Premier League (EPL) for football, which was a promising thought but was received to mixed reviews. The NBA was reportedly watched by over 140 million viewers in India over the course of last season.
Hindi is the second-most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin), with nearly 500 million speakers combined who speak it as a native or a second-language. With this move, the NBA could reach out to millions of viewers in India who are much more comfortable with Hindi than English as the language of broadcast, potentially expanding their fan-base further. It will take away from some of the perceived "elitism" of the game - of basketball as a foreign sport just for comfortable English speakers - and bring it down to the grassroots.
Of course, hardcore Indian basketball fans already have some experience of Hindi commentary and broadcast, and we can thank DD Sports for that. For decades, India's national championships have been broadcast both in English and Hindi (and often, in other languages too). They haven't always been very good.
Abroad, the most famous example of a crossover of American sports and Indian language has been the success of Hockey Night Punjabi, the Canada-based broadcast of the Ice Hockey league NHL. The Sacramento Kings have been ahead of the "India outreach curve" in the NBA thanks to their Mumbai-born owner Vivek Ranadive. At recent "Bollywood Nights" in Sacramento, they have made pre-game P.A. announcements in Hindi and had players wearing warm-up jerseys in the devanagari script.
Ultimately, the success of NBA in Hindi will depend not on the language but on the quality of commentators. The NBA will have a tough job at finding those rare individuals who are both articulate in Hindi and also experts in the NBA and basketball. Hindi speakers who cannot tell their Wilson Chandler from Chandler Parsons will not do. NBA experts without expertise in smart and coherent Hindi will be a let down: even many of us First-Language Hindi speakers would falter at instinctively remembering our paryayvachis and viloms. I also hope that the NBA looks at current and former Indian basketball players who have a natural understanding and experience of the game.
The NBA is ultimately a North American league and will always be first identified by its English commentators. But I hope that the move to switch to Hindi can be done the right away so we can have Hindi's own response to Marv Albert's "Yes!" and Walt Frazier's most popular "Clydeisms".