Vandana Balachandar: "The NBA continues to push boundaries and strives to be a leader when it comes to inclusion"

Àlex Gozalbo
5 min
Vandana Balachandar, NBA Vice President of Global Partnerships to the Europe and Middle East Region

BarcelonaVandana Balachandar, NBA Vice President of Global Partnerships in the Europe and Middle East (EME) region, is one of the key voices to understand the international projection of the best basketball league in the world. The executive analyzes for the ARA the main challenges of an area in constant evolution.

What responsibilities do you have in the NBA?

— I am based in the NBA’s London-based office and head up the Global Partnerships division for the Europe & Middle East region. In my role, I am responsible for our commercial business across merchandising and marketing partnerships and lead a team that manages business development, ecommerce, licensing, retail, and marketing partnerships/sponsorships.

Tell us about the main goals in your area.

— Our fans are at our core. Making the NBA more accessible to fans across the region is infused in everything we do and every partnership we enter. Whether that manifests itself through signing a partnership with Spanish clothing retailer, Bershka, to bring NBA-branded apparel to men and women throughout Europe or working with partners like Endesa, to bring customized content and shows to fans in Spain. Naturally, as a commercial division, my team focuses on driving revenue for the business, though collaborating with like-minded partners to develop authentic storytelling and innovative ideas to connect with fans remains key.

How is the pandemic affecting your industry?

— Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, we have worked closely with our partners to engage with fans at home through creative and first-of-their-kind activations, creating solutions and new opportunities to help fulfill obligations to our partners in these uncertain and extraordinary times. We’ve pivoted quite a bit this past year by bringing events and activations to fans virtually – examples include our coaching clinics, typically held in person, which we delivered virtually in partnership with OWQLO, the official Jr. NBA League app in Europe and the Middle East, and Gatorade. In Sept. 2020, we hosted ‘Scendi in Campo con NBA presentato da Gatorade,’ a campaign to provide basketball hoops to fans in Italy so they could play and stay active while continuing to observe local health and safety guidelines related to the pandemic. Sky Sport, Tissot and UBI Banca joined Gatorade as marketing partners on the campaign, further promoting it to support local communities’ return to the court. In addition, we hosted ‘NBA 2K Sundays with Thibault Courtois’ where the Real Madrid goalkeeper played NBA 2K21 against various celebrity opponents, replicating our scheduled NBA Sundays matchups and streaming it via his Twitch channel. These are just a few of many examples of how we came together with our terrific partners and were forced to get creative because of the pandemic. And I am enthused at the prospect that these concepts will live on even once this pandemic is behind us.

Vandana Balachandar and Rip Hamilton during a promotional event in Doha

How important is Europe in the NBA's strategic market?

— Europe is a key strategic region for the NBA, with a strong history and culture for the sport, passionate fans and engaged partners. Growing basketball in the Europe and around the globe has been one of our top priorities as a league for decades and will continue to be moving forward. We are committed to identifying new opportunities to reach fans through innovative partnerships and using technology to bring them closer to the game. We have a three-pronged strategy to grow the game of basketball in the region: Grassroots basketball development is one of our key pillars and we have more than 80 leagues in our Jr. NBA program. The second focus is to bring the NBA closer to fans in Europe through live games and interactive events. While physical events have obviously been a challenge during the pandemic, we plan to continue to host international games and events when it is safe for everyone involved. In addition, we are working with our partners to test digital and virtual initiatives. Third, we want to make basketball more accessible and offer localized content to fans. The 2020-21 NBA season is reaching fans in 215 countries in more than 50 languages on their TVs, computers, mobile phones and tablets. That figure includes 47 countries and 36 languages in Europe alone.

It has been a historic season after Becky Hammon’s debut as the first head coach in league history and the first game with two female referees. In your opinion, which is the next step for the league from a gender perspective?

— The NBA continues to push boundaries and strives to be a leader when it comes to inclusion – we believe that this is essential to the future success of our game. You’ve noted a couple historic moments from this season – we’ve had six female referees and that is a first in professional male sports! There is also Kelly Krauskopf serving as the first female assistant GM in NBA history, and Michele Roberts who became the first female head of a North American professional sports union when she took the helm of the NBAPA (National Basketball Players Association). There is still work to do, but our organization has certainly proven it’s commitment to continuing to push on this front, striving to be a leader in diversity and inclusion.

We do not see many female executives working at important positions in other organizations. Why is that? How can we move forward?

— I’m not sure this is entirely accurate as there are a number of female executives in other organizations. For example, in 2020, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies hit a new high, with 37 women holding the top spots at the 500 largest companies in America. Although that’s a new record, that still means women hold only 7.4% of these positions ( That said, I know we can definitely do better and we need this to keep improving. The good news is that there has never been a clearer acknowledgment that diversity in the workplace across gender and race is critical to any organization’s success. Different perspectives, backgrounds and skillsets all contribute to the growth and success of any organization.

How important is gender equality to the NBA?

The NBA upholds that diversity and inclusion are essential to the future success of our game and as of last season, over 40% of professional positions at the league were held by women. The NBA ranks as the most gender-diverse men’s sports league in North American team sports. We aim to make the game of basketball and business of the NBA synonymous with the principles of inclusion. Therefore, gender equality is extremely important to the NBA. Will future generations have an easier path to leadership positions? I am truly optimistic that this will be the case. Strides have been made in my 20+ year career in sports, and things are only getting better with each passing day

Do you have specific strategies to engage female audiences?

— Truth be told we have an encouraging following in our region amongst females already – actually, we just received some youth fan research for Spain which showed that girls make up 43% of our youth fan base there, an increase from 2019. We continue to work with likeminded brands who believe in engaging with women and promoting women’s sports. Additionally, through our Jr. NBA programs, we aim to engage and develop young female athletes.

What is the strategic importance of the WNBA?

— The WNBA is important in continuing to showcase to young girls and athletes that hard work pays off and, whether you are a boy or a girl, there is a path to becoming a professional athlete. The interest in the WNBA is growing and we continue to evaluate opportunities to bring the game closer to fans in the region. On April 24, 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved the creation of the WNBA. Since then, the WNBA has hosted the best women's basketball talent in the world and I will be proud to celebrate the league's 25th season in 2021.