ATLANTA — For Hawks rookie Dennis Schroder, playing a regular season game in London will represent a sort of homecoming.
For other Hawks — even some of the most well-traveled ones — the overseas trip will bring a chance to visit one of the world’s great cities and provide a sort of cultural exchange with, perhaps, some team bonding.
Whether it’s the English Premier League’s reach into the rich United States market and elsewhere into Asia or North American pro leagues’ venturing across the pond, professional sports leagues increasingly are looking to exploit marketing possibilities outside of their home bases.
For years, the NHL held its "premier games," a two-tiered series of exhibition matchups with domestic clubs from Sweden, Czech and other European nations, followed by multiple regular-season outings featuring NHL franchises.
The NFL had its now-defunct NFL Europe league and has played games in England for years. Next season, the Atlanta Falcons will give up a home game to play the Detroit Lions in London. Years ago, the Falcons also played an exhibition game in Japan.
In March, Major League Baseball will hold its âOpening Series" in Australia for the first time, pitting the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. Previously, MLB has held season-opening events in Mexico, Japan and Puerto Rico.
The NBA’s foray into the international market really seemed to take off with the stardom that Chinese national Yao Ming earned with the Houston Rockets starting in 2002. Suddenly, the NBA realized it had a nation of more than 1 billion people in thrall with its product.
That’s a lot of potential T-shirt sales.
Eariler this season, San Antonio and Minnesota were forced to postpone a game in Mexico when a generator at the arena failed. It’s doubtful the Hawks will have the same bad luck in what the league has dubbed "NBA Global Games London 2014," the league’s 12th game in London.
The first NBA games held in London were played in 1993. Thursday’s matchup, pitting the Hawks and Brooklyn Nets, will be played at The 02, which is hosting its eighth NBA game since 2007.
With general manager Danny Ferry espousing more of a global view of basketball — two draft picks from last year are now playing in Spain, including Brazilian Lucas Nogueira, and Ferry was rumored to have interest in hiring an Italian coach (Ettore Messina) — it’s possible the Hawks could use this experience as a scouting platform and also promote their brand overseas.
"Playing in London will be a special experience for our players and coaches and we are proud to represent Atlanta in front of an international audience," Ferry said in a statement in announcing the game last June.
Hawks center Elton Brand has played 14 NBA seasons and numerous years with USA Basketball, which took him to such exotic locales as China, Puerto Rico and India. But he has never been to London.
"I think it’s a great opportunity," he said. "We’re going to keep expanding the game to fans around the world. I know the NFL’s been doing it for a while with one game over there. It’s a real game so itâll be a lot of fun. See what the travelâs like. See how that fares."
For Schroder, a native of Germany, the trip will hold appeal on a more personal level. He has two cousins and an aunt who lives in England. He has not seen them in two-plus years. Also, his national team coach, his older brother, his brother’s girlfriend, his best friend and numerous other friends and family will try to make the trip.
Schroder’s excited to see everyone. Having said that, he is not sure what kind of audience the NBA will find in England, as compared to that of other European nations like Spain, France, Italy and Eastern European countries that have sent players to the NBA — including the Hawks’ Pero Antic, a native of Macedonia.
"I don’t even know," Schroder said. "I watch football — like soccer — and they got big fans (in England). I don’t know how it is in basketball. I’m excited to play over there."
As an organization, the Hawks have played in Europe once before. In late October 1993, the Hawks faced Orlando in London in two preseason games. When he played for Utah, Hawks forward Paul Millsap participated in a preseason game in London.
He didn’t see much of the city, though.
"We didn’t actually tour," he said. "We got there, practiced and then we played so it wasn’t really any down time. I think weâll have a little down here, though.
"(We will) get out a little bit see what London has to offer, I guess."
The Hawks are slated to fly to England on Monday and return back to U.S. soil on Friday.
Like the space race in the 1950s and 60s between the United States and Soviet Union, where the Americans first reached the moon (July 1969), the four major North American pro sports leagues are seemingly engaged in a competition to put the first team in London.
When — or if — that happens, remains to be seen.
Millsap had some logistical concerns about an NBA franchise in London.
"It would be tough, I think, but I donât know how far it is," he said. "It may be from Miami to Portland or something like that. Travel would be tough, but it’s something that guys can get used to."