Fabio Malavazzi sits down at his desk and pretends it is 1988: The Lakers and Jazz are tied 2-2 in the Western Conference semis. Karl Malone is 24. Michael Cooper hasn’t yet hit a game-winner. Then Malavazzi puts on his headset and waits for his producer—sitting half a world away in Brazil—to click play.
At this table, crisscrossed by wires, topped by a pair of monitors and set in his basement in Brookfield, Conn., two of the biggest trends in sports media collide. Here, the internet’s power to democratize production and globalize sports is on full display.
Malavazzi has had a subterranean setup since before the pandemic made it cool, calling Portuguese-language play-by-play for some of the best games in NBA history. He’s recorded more than 120 now for the NBA’s League Pass subscription service, plus scores of live games. NBA tech provider Kiswe allows him to call the action—often ‘alongside’ a partner based in Brazil—from a tab in Chrome.
The Kevin Harlans of the world will eventually return to broadcast booths, but countless more voices will use technology like Kiswe’s. Cheap and easy at-home setups allow for production experiments aimed at ever-smaller niches. Fans can easily become announcers on Twitch, while networks have the ability to offer alternative streams, such as FOX’s Super Bowl watch parties or the PGA’s betting-focused broadcasts.
Thus far, international audiences might be the most common targets. Amazon offered viewers worldwide a version of Thursday Night Football called by Brits as the NFL considers expanding in London, for instance. But it was NBA commissioner Adam Silver who said, “I believe we can be the No. 1 sport in the world.”
China has fueled much of the league’s international growth. With more than 500 million viewers, the NBA has become the most popular league in the world’s most populous country. But in 2019, the league was reminded about the importance of not putting all of its balls in one basket. When Rockets GM Daryl Morey set off a controversy by tweeting a message of support to protesters in Hong Kong, it threatened to cost the league up to $400 million.
Brazil has offered another prime growth market. It has the world’s ninth-largest economy. Its national team is nearly 100 years old. And its largest cities are only two hours ahead of U.S. East Coast time. Currently, Brazil is the NBA’s largest non-English-speaking market for League Pass (with China and Japan excluded as local partners run similar products there). The user base has doubled since 2017, with 400 live games broadcast in Portuguese across local broadcasters and League Pass exclusives this year. Malavazzi helps lead the charge.
His path to—well, his basement—started at Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional, one of Brazil’s largest steel producers. Malavazzi worked in its finance department before deciding that studying English would help him get ahead. He stayed with a friend in Danbury, Conn., before starting an English language program at Western Connecticut University, unaware that the campus was within an hour’s drive of ESPN’s headquarters.
He delivered pizzas. He restored antiques. And he played pickup basketball. At one game, an ESPN staffer told him the network was looking for Portuguese announcers for its nascent ESPN International effort.
In a previous era of global expansion, ESPN was already marketing in 150 countries by 1995, with its international opportunity a major reason behind Disney’s acquisition. At the time, ESPN.com was just beginning to launch its first website.
Malavazzi said he didn’t have any experience broadcasting. The staffer said it didn’t matter—Malavazzi could play basketball and speak Portuguese. He should at least try out.
Before Malavazzi could start at ESPN, he was poached by Turner Sports for TNT Latin America. He flew to Atlanta every week to call games from the company’s studio, working next door to Ernie Johnson. He ended up working for ESPN, too, in the early 2000s, with little feedback from his international listeners.
“Once in a while we’d get an email,” he said. He’d listen back to his own tape and check in with his announcing partner, but even his producers couldn’t offer much advice early on: They didn’t speak the language.
In 2017, the NBA called. “Brazil was the next China,” Malavazzi said. “China was a huge market; Brazil was the next one. They really wanted to invest there.”
By then, the league had already established 13 regional offices around the globe, with broadcasts in more than 200 countries and nearly 50 languages. One of the league’s outbound emissaries, NBA VP for content management and ops David Thomas, relocated to Brazil in 2016 to help develop localized content, though the new League Pass feed would have to come from Secaucus, N.J.
“[Malavazzi] was a perfect candidate for us to start the venture,” Thomas said.
He started calling classic games in the spring of 2017, deciding that he’d broadcast them as if they were live rather than looking back on them in hindsight. The success of that program led to live telecasts during the 2017-18 season, which Malavazzi spent commuting from Connecticut to New Jersey. “It was a little bit crazy at the beginning,” Malavazzi said. “I was announcing the games and doing the commentary at the same time—just by myself.”
This time, feedback was immediate. “We quickly saw that the in-language stream was the most popular stream of all the ones we provided in Brazil,” NBA SVP of digital products and emerging technology Michael Allen said. “That led us to start to do a lot more of these, and not only in Brazil and in Portuguese.”
The league has since acquired rights to broadcast in-language feeds from partners like ESPN Mexico. League Pass has added L.A.-based commentators as well as broadcasters in Mexico and across Latin America to call other games, taking Malavazzi’s recommendations into account. The NBA partnership with Kiswe, a tech startup that offers a cloud-based production workflow, allowed Malavazzi to broadcast from home starting in 2018. “Since we introduced Kiswe’s tech,” Allen said, “literally we could have announcers around the world in their basements calling games.”
They soon might. The NBA is currently experimenting with its own broadcasts in languages ranging from French to Punjabi, looking to supplement the work of local broadcasters with the help of modern tools.
The stable of Portuguese broadcasters, meanwhile, has grown to six, but Thomas said Malavazzi won’t be going anywhere. “There are not other Fabios around,” he said.