The NBA is expanding to Africa — and there’s a Toronto connection to the deal


Toronto’s connections to basketball in Africa expanded this week as one of the city’s biggest investors took a stake in the NBA’s latest international venture.

The National Basketball Association on Monday announced the formation of NBA Africa, revealing strategic investors that include four former NBA players and the chairman of a Nigerian conglomerate as well as Helios Fairfax Partners Corp., an influential African investment company that is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and part-owned by Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.

NBA Africa will now conduct the league’s business in Africa, including Basketball Africa League, which will wrap up its first season on Sunday in Kigali, Rwanda. The BAL features 12 of the top club teams from across that continent and marks the first time the NBA has participated in operating a league outside of North America.

Tope Lawani, who is the co-CEO of Helios Fairfax and will take a seat on the NBA Africa board, is a Nigerian businessman with a long history of managing investments in Africa. He’s a basketball fan and said in an interview with the Star that that gives him an understanding of the loyalty and emotion sports can elicit, though it was not the deciding factor in the investment.

Basketball is already the second-most popular sport — after soccer, specifically European leagues — in many large African countries, Lawani said, adding that it is notably popular with women.

“That means you’ve got a foundation on which to build a more inclusive, family-oriented experience than you might have in the case of football,” he said, adding the inclusion of the BAL will be central to developing an audience. “It’s a very high-quality basketball experience, by Africans, in Africa, that Africans can watch and observe in a way that didn’t exist before.”

Lawani, who spoke with the Star from London, England, where he is based, also sees opportunity for creative packaging of both BAL and North American NBA content. European football is typically offered over satellite TV for $75 to $100 per month, reaching only the “very top slice of the top slice” of African consumers, he said.

“But you might be willing to watch highlights of the game a day or two delayed, for example, and maybe that doesn’t cost much money,” Lawani said. “There are infinite variety of ways in which this content can be sliced, diced and priced so that it speaks to the socioeconomic reality of the African consumer.”

Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri, who founded the non-profit organization Giants of Africa in 2003, is arguably Toronto’s most famous connection to basketball in Nigeria. Lawani said he has long admired Ujiri but had not met him prior to Helios’s involvement with Toronto-based Fairfax.

A holding company founded by long-term value investor Prem Watsa, Fairfax merged its own African operations with Helios Holdings Ltd. last December. Lawani co-founded Helios Investment Partners LLP, which is the investment adviser to the Helios funds, including Helios Fairfax.

(Paul Rivett, chairman and co-owner of Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, was previously the longtime president of Fairfax Financial.)

It was Watsa who suggested Lawani should meet Ujiri and the two have since gotten to know each other.

“I think part of the appeal of this investment is to partner with people like (Ujiri) who have a passion not just for basketball but for driving positive socioeconomic change on the continent,” Lawani said.