A Bridge Building Role For Basketball Africa League

By Ajong Mbapndah L

Under the dynamic leadership of Amadou Gallo Fall, BAL has added another layer to the bonds between Africa and USA

Talk about sports diplomacy, and the Basketball Africa League will be a strong contender as a success story for its bridge-building role between the USA and Africa. It has been a tale of premium entertainment, revelation of incredible fresh talent, marketing African tourism, and generally promoting the continent to blockbuster audiences who follow up BAL across the globe.

With a dynamic leadership team led by Amadou Gallo Fall, a man with unbridled passion for the game and for Africa, BAL is giving new meaning to what a combination of vision, passion, and resources can do for the continent. Two successful seasons, a surging presence across diverse networks and social media platforms, a very warm reception within the continent, and for Amadou Gallo Fall, BAL is still just getting started and no where close yet to its full potential or fulfilling its vision.

In the midst of his very hectic schedule, Amadou Gallo Fall found time for an interview with PAV to share more insights into the BAL vision, its growing number of side events and initiatives, perspectives on the USA-African Leaders Summit, and the upcoming season three of BAL

Could we start this interview with your overall assessment of how Basketball Africa has fared since its creation?

Amadou Gallo Fall: We have continued to build great momentum from when we launched on May 16, 2021, in Kigali. We launched amid the pandemic in a complete bubble. We brought all the teams in Kigali to a single site, whereas we had planned in 2020 when we announced the creation of the league that we were going to play in seven cities, but the pandemic forced us to look at what best opportunities to play without COVID being a problem. We were able to achieve that and kudos to Rwanda for what they did; at that time Rwanda was the only place which had the conditions to organize the historic launch. The feedback was tremendous from the games broadcast all over the world.

The biggest takeaway is that it was possible to stage a world-class event in Africa; we have the talents and certainly the fan interest and now with the NBA and FIBA coming together to launch the Basketball Africa League, this is something we should be very proud of. We continue to build on that momentum and this year during the second season, we expanded the footprint by going from one site in 2021 to playing in three iconic cities (Dakar, Cairo and Kigali), over three months and playing and expanding to from 26 games in the first season to 38 games last season. The games were equally broadcasted in 214 countries, and we crowned a new champion – US Monastir (Tunisia) with the first champion being Zamalek of Egypt.

Now, we are very busy planning for the third season which we are going to launch in March, and we will be making some announcements very soon, about where we will be playing, the formats and bringing in some innovations. We are very encouraged by what we are seeing and the continuous feedback from all around the world.

About Season 2 that ended in May, in what areas did you see success, and what are some of the areas that need improvement going forward?

Amadou Gallo Fall: From a basketball standpoint, we were encouraged by the progress we saw in terms of the quality of the games and the quality of the competition. We had two conferences; the Sahara conference took place in Dakar, last March and the Nile conference took place in Cairo, Egypt in April. The top four teams from each of the conferences advanced to the playoffs and finals in Kigali in May. Teams came very much engaged and prepared from season one as we were still engaged in a pandemic as it showed with the teams not having that much game experience, but we saw in season two improved rosters because the teams knew what to expect, and they had the desire to compete at the highest level. We had more competitive games and in the rosters, each team (made up of 12) was mandated to have 8 local players because we want to promote African talent and local basketball in our countries. Champions emerging from these countries and heading into the league that creates this product that we all want to see.

We saw in the second season improved play. We launch the Elevate program, where we have the top young talents, and prospects from the NBA Academy Africa program, and we assign one player from the academy to each of the BAL teams and we saw the tremendous contributions from them. It also helped us keep the league young and make sure that the future of the league is assured because we have young talents coming in that are going to inspire the next generation who want to continue to strive in basketball. Yes, they will always dream to go to the NBA, but we want to make sure that they know that they have an opportunity on the continent to grow in the game and then make it professionally.

We have also seen an increased fan engagement, something we were pleased with during the second season, and we have almost 600 million fans engaged with the league across social and digital media platforms. We have continued to see growth in the off-season.

From a business standpoint, we continue to draw world-class partners who are interested in supporting the league because what we are doing is bigger than basketball; we have many programs we launched during the season. One of the reasons why the NBA is what it is, is that we attract the best in class in all aspects of what drives a successful enterprise. We will continue to make sure we have the best athletes, continue to train coaches to make sure that they are at a world-class level, train referees, officials and at the same time, we want to attract expert communication people, broadcast people, coaches, lawyers and this is why we are confident that this league is going to grow.

In two years, Amadou Gallo Fall and his team have defied the odds to make BAL a formidable success story

As we head into season three, are you satisfied with the reception that the league has received across the continent?

Amadou Gallo Fall:  Absolutely. We are, but certainly because of the ambitions we have for the league, when I say I am satisfied I want to do that with a caveat. I will say we are encouraged and motivated by the reception we have seen but because of our ambitions, we are not satisfied yet. We will continue to drive and push to make sure that we get this product to the fold and out there.

We are doing this interview in the build-up to the US-Africa Leaders’ summit, how has the Basketball Africa league helped to build bridges or improve ties between the USA and Africa?

Amadou Gallo Fall: For us, basketball has been the catalyst; our work on the continent has been on building the capacity and empowering youth. Sports is the greatest tool we can utilize because it speaks their language. Basketball is a youth sport, it speaks their language, and it is the perfect sport where all the other aspects of youth culture; music, fashion and arts converge. We think by engaging with young people, and inspiring young people by empowering them we are going to elevate all our communities; even the way we organize our league, the champions from twelve countries, for now, looking at getting more countries involved in the event. Just the virtues of sport are being utilized and displayed effectively, bringing different African countries and basketball being quintessentially a US sport that can easily be transported, we see the interest amongst the youth across Africa.

We see the interest amongst the youth from all over Africa. Having this league and interacting with the US basketball communities; the NBA has been doing work on the continent for many years and that is what led to the formation of the Basketball Africa League in partnership with FIBA, the world governing body for the sport.

We would like to get insights into other initiatives like the Diaspora engagement program in Berlin and Abidjan, how does this fit into the overall vision and mission of the Basketball Africa League?

Amadou Gallo Fall:  It is part of our drive to make sure that we take the Basketball Africa League experience to the world. We think the African Diaspora have continued to pay attention and has continued to express interest in engaging with the league. The league is going to be an economic growth engine for the continent. If you look at how we organize our games, taking six teams from six countries into one African city; think about the number of people travelling to come and enjoy the game and experience these countries. There are some desires from Africans all around the world to come back home and experience the games. We are here in Abidjan where FIBA is hosting qualifiers for season three. Our program is to showcase the league to the African Diaspora; we will do other events, not just in Berlin, whether it is in Paris, Atlanta, or Sydney, we want to make sure that the experience we are having here on the ground is showcased and exposed to people who want to engage or come back to the continent and there is no better path for them than sports and basketball in particular and in our case the Basketball Africa League.

On the threes for trees campaign in Rwanda, and now in Angola, what was the logic behind this and how did it go?

Amadou Gallo Fall:  It comes from our commitment to make sure that our league serves our community. We want to be drivers of positive social change. Issues that are threatening the environment across the world are felt strongly in Africa, Africa suffers the most whereas it is the least contributor to the problem. We want to be proactive and continue to do our part and make sure that not just our players in the league, but young people understand that we should not sit and wait for others to come and do it for us; we can take matters into our own hands to start addressing issues in stopping desertification and others.

We had the activity recently in Angola because the way we set up our Threes for Trees campaign is that the teams engage in a competition (3-point shooting); for every three-point basket made, we donate three trees to NGOs active in the space of combating desertification. The team from Angola, Petro de Luanda, made the most three-pointers and that is why we went to Angola. We sent our teams to go and help plant those trees. In Kigali, at the start of season two, we had an activity where all the teams were involved to help plant trees and seeing how the teams and players were engaged in it for us was encouraging. It just shows what we need to do is raise awareness amongst the youth that climate change is a bad reality, but we can do something to alleviate it. That is the main focus. We have a partner, New Fortress Energy that has jumped on board with us, enabling the tree donation and we are going to continue. We are very excited to continue seeing the interest not only for our teams but for our fans also who are following up on this activity.

For Amadou Gallo Fall, the best is still to come from BAL

 Can you also shed some light on the Basketball Africa League Elevate program, how is this helping the progress and growth of basketball on the continent?

Amadou Gallo Fall: One of those things we are proud of is that for over a decade and even beyond when we opened the NBA Africa office, we launched Basketball Without Borders in 2003 and through all the different grassroots initiatives, now we have established a complete pathway from grassroots to elite where young players who have a passion for the game, who want to learn the game can do so by participating in the sport. The opportunity we have with the creation of the NBA Academy in 2017, means that elite talents are intentionally invited, providing all the training tools that are needed for elite players to reach their potential. Now we have young players who can engage with the game, through some of the grassroots activities like Jr. NBA or Basketball Without Borders and others, still in partnership with FIBA; if they are exceptionally talented, they are identified and given scholarships to join the NBA Academy to continue the talent development and motivation.

We created the Elevate program where we take the top athletes of the NBA Academy Africa program to play for BAL teams to continue their talent motivation, a chance for them to play against older and talented players and showcase their talents and accelerate their growth. From grassroots to elite, we have created a link between the BAL and the work that NBA Africa is doing in the academies; the feedback and results we have seen from some of the young talents last year have been encouraging. 

The Elevate program is about infusing young talent that are going to keep the league young and fresh legs and young people we are going to hear about in the years to come and someday some of them integrate into the NBA. Since then, a number of these Elevate players have signed with professional teams or committed to NCCA Division 1 University in the US.

Beyond the excitement and the thrill of the game, how will you describe or sum up the economic impact of the Basketball Africa League on the continent?

Amadou Gallo Fall: We talk about the BAL being a catalyst for a robust sports industry; we know how much sports and entertainment contribute to the GDPs of countries around the world but Africa accounts for a small percentage. This is what we intend to change because it starts with encouraging stakeholders both from the public and private sectors to look to invest in building world-class infrastructures. These arenas we are seeing are starting to pop up; that is where the business is and all kind of development comes up from real estate, on game day you see all the economic activities that take place from transportation, catering and all the jobs created just in that arena. This is the impact we want to see and when we started engaging with President Kagame of Rwanda and noting the opportunities, they went to build an arena in less than a year and today you see that arena is hosting a lot of activities, not just the BAL, but there are concerts taking place there and different conferences, that are driving tourists to visit the country, which is a big goal for the country.

In Senegal, we have a partnership established with an agency to promote tourism. We exchange with these countries about the idea of sports tourism by hosting these major events, you are bringing in people that are going to spend. There is a ripple effect as other infrastructures are going to be built and that is the idea of sports as an economic growth engine. This is the impact we are going to see in Africa. We started in all three countries where we hosted our games last year. We have only scratched the surface and the League will continue to go to more countries. We have twelves countries participating in the finals but all the countries in the continent have an opportunity to participate through these qualifiers that FIBA is hosting, we are in the finals that is why we are in Abidjan and next week it will be for the East Division Johannesburg, South Africa.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of the Basketball Africa League?

Amadou Gallo Fall: The future is extremely bright. We are bullish about the ambitions we have, and we remain confident because of the talent we have on the continent and at all levels. We have a partnership between FIBA and the NBA to drive success to this league. The NBA has expertise in terms of operating and commercializing sports, and we continue to work with FIBA to promote the game holistically. Yes, finding and developing this talent and at the same time working on building the capacity from the administrative standpoint, giving our federations the right tools to identify the right talent, and drive the administration of the game. That is where the opportunity is, and it is super exciting.

A combination of visionary leadership, innovative management, and creative genius have earned respect for BAL across the globe

What message do you have for African leaders meeting in Washington DC, and what message do you have for potential partners?

Amadou Gallo Fall: We want the recognition from the leaders that sport is a very important industry of what we are all looking to build in Africa. If we are going to achieve socioeconomic development, this is an industry that can fast-track that because we have talent in abundance. We just need now to create an enabling environment; they can have laws that are incentives for the private sector or companies to invest in creating safe spaces for young people to engage in sports in general. In promoting basketball, we want to create alliances that are going to allow us to build basketball courts everywhere. that is where it starts, young people have to have the opportunities to get out there and bounce a ball. We partner with like-minded organizations to come and work with us to be part of the solution. The leaders are seeing what is happening and the impact being created; just two years after we launched the league, we are seeing that it is possible, so, we are going to remain that catalyst and we want to continue inviting people to pay attention and participate. The feedback we get from all around the world is of tremendous interest. I am not saying we are there yet with the league but when it comes to Basketball, however the presence of African players in the NBA should be a push factor.

President Amadou, thank you for talking to Pan African Visions and good luck with all the big dreams.

Amadou Gallo Fall:  Thank you. This is what we are saying, everybody can play a role. This league is bigger than basketball; we want the best players in the world to come and play, the best journalists and the best lawyers and more. This is what is exciting!

**Culled from December Issue of PAV Magazine

 

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