NBA International
NBA players take part in a training session in Johannesburg, July 31, 2015, ahead of their exhibition match on Saturday. Reuters

The National Basketball Association is changing the way international fans experience its “NBA League Pass” service. Starting this season, the NBA will offer its subscriber-driven streaming platform commercial-free to international viewers, the International Business Times has learned.

The changes are part of the NBA’s strategy to build its global audience, drawing in new international fans by giving them a taste of what it’s like to sit courtside at a professional basketball game. But the absence of commercials also hints at the difficulties American sports leagues encounter as they try to advertise and promote their products overseas, where fans are often unfamiliar with the game.

In the past, international viewers saw league-sponsored programming, such as merchandise ads and “NBA Cares” segments, during game timeouts. Rather than ads, international “League Pass” viewers will now see a real-time feed of what’s happening on the court during game timeouts. Subscribers will see players huddle and dance teams perform before returning to the game. As the season progresses, “League Pass” users outside the U.S. will be introduced to early versions of app services tailored to regional audiences, such local language functionality, noteworthy articles and graphics.

“Whether a German fan wants more Dirk Nowitzki or the German fan wants more Steph Curry, we can find out pretty close to real-time what type of content by player and by team is really resonating in a particular market and be able to super-serve that fan more of that content,” said Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, the NBA’s senior vice president of digital media.

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The NBA has already made significant inroads in the global market, in terms of both player development and financial opportunities. A record 101 foreign-born players were listed on NBA rosters at the start of the 2014-15 NBA season. The 2015 NBA Finals were seen in 215 countries last June. The league has been aggressive with its marketing, spending $135.8 million on television, radio and print advertising in 2014, Ad Age reported. With annual revenue already in excess of $5 billion, further expansion in markets like China, Africa and Australia, where the local appetite for basketball has grown increasingly voracious, is a key to the NBA’s financial efforts.

“League Pass” grants fans access to local broadcasts of each game. Earlier this year, the league announced fans could play $6.99 to buy individual NBA games, regardless of where they live. Fans also can pay $119.99 for access to any NBA team’s full slate of games. Streaming is available on computers and mobile devices, and the price for the full “NBA League Pass” service, with access to every game of the season, is set at $199.99.

The NBA doesn’t release the service’s total number of international subscribers, but Australia and Germany have particularly large bases of users. The individual game option is seen as crucial in the international market, as it will allow casual fans to sample the NBA’s product.

But it may take a while for the NBA to attract local advertisers for its digital products in foreign markets. The U.S. market, with its population of 300 million people who largely speak the same language, lends itself to television advertising. Making inroads in Europe, for example, where the TV market is divided by country and language, is far more complicated. Establishing relationships with brands in foreign markets on an individual basis is a difficult, time-consuming process.

“The international TV market is super segmented, both my language and by geographic region. That just makes it harder in the first place,” said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts.

Still, the NBA is “pretty far along,” thanks to its development of international stars like Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks star who became a de-facto brand ambassador in his native Germany. A strong showing by the new “NBA League Pass” could attract more international fans – and more international sponsors. The NBA is ready and waiting to capitalize on any opportunities.

“We’re poised to be nimble to act upon commercialization opportunities as they appear and present themselves,” Brenner said.