by Kyle Stack / @NYsportswriter

Any NBA fan overwhelmed by the League’s technological marketing efforts might be relieved to know it still has an old-fashioned way to expose its brand. All it takes is a 53-foot tractor trailer that’s basically a mobile playground to travel throughout the country.

That’s the premise of the eight-city tour known as NBA Nation, which is expected to draw over 1 million people this spring and summer. In its third year, NBA Nation opened in Phoenix and Denver the first two weekends of May with a number of events and interactive elements covering over roughly 25,000 square feet that brings the NBA a little closer to fans. (Los Angeles, Cleveland, New York City, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Dallas round up the final six stops of the tour.)

“It’s about bringing the local team experience to the local fans who wouldn’t necessarily have the chance to sit in the arena and pay the prices that some folks are able to pay,” said Karen Barberan, Program Director for NBA Nation.  NBA Nation basketball court

The Nation events offer everything from showing off your shooting and slam dunk skills on basketball courts to measuring your arm span against that of NBA players to meeting Darryl Dawkins, a 14-year NBA veteran in the ’70s and ’80s who serves as the Nation’s Ambassador.

The events, sponsored by T-Mobile, Kia Motors and Sprite, enable NBA fans, no matter the age, an opportunity for interaction. That makes the Nation distinctively different from past NBA mobile tours, such as Jam Van and the Rhythm ‘n Rims Tour. Barberan stated NBA Nation needed to take on a certain personality when it began in 2008.

“We felt the need to specifically focus on NBA markets and we decided to focus on basketball rather than music, which was our idea with the Rhythm ‘n Rims Tour,” Barberan said.

What the Nation affords the NBA to do is to offer a physical component to its interaction with fans. A story from March in this same space detailed the League’s efforts to connect with fans through social media. In the case of NBA Nation, that connection can be made face-to-face. Of course, that up-close exposure comes with added responsibility.

“Because we’re the lone tour going out this year, we have to market all the NBA initiatives,” Barberan said of making fans aware of playoff programing, NBA Finals programming and even retail components of the NBA and NBA Store. “We have some responsibility to expose and market all those elements.”

While Nation uses traditional media — radio, print and some television ads — much of the awareness for upcoming stops is broadcast through teams located in the cities which host the weekend events. The NBA will send e-mail blasts through the teams to that team’s season-ticket holders and ads will run on team websites. The NBA and individual teams will also spread awareness through their social media endeavors.

The marketing of the event makes it clear that each Nation tour stop takes on the flavor of the local team. For instance, former Suns Cedric Ceballos and Eddie Johnson made guest appearances over the two-day Phoenix event May 1 and 2, which drew 107,770 people, according to the NBA. And the excitement from each city is amplified if the team in that city is still in the NBA playoffs. This year’s Nation tour, which runs from May 1 through July 10, has already benefited in that respect.

“Since the cities in the front half of the tour [Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, Cleveland] have teams in the playoffs, we’re finding that we’re a much bigger asset than we originally thought we’d be to these teams,” Barberan said.

Phoenix and Cleveland were both new cities on the Nation tour schedule for this year. There are a variety of factors that go into determining which cities are visited, although certain locales, such as Los Angeles and New York City, are always good bets to host a tour stop because of their size and media exposure.

Sprite Slam Dunk Contest “It’s really tricky in that we have three big partners on this tour,” Barberan said of choosing cities that provide a valuable audience for partners T-Mobile, Kia Motors and Sprite. “No matter what the city, you want to provide an authentic team experience. Part of the challenge is we’re always trying to balance efforts with getting well-attended events having the timing work out [geographically].”

By that, Barberan means that rather than see the Nation bus — which carries a 12-person crew — constantly travel cross-country, it’s more efficient to group stops among cities that are geographically close. For instance, the tour’s first three stops are in Phoenix, Denver and Los Angeles, which are all generally accessible to each other. (Phoenix had to be scheduled in early May because the city grows too hot in the summer to comfortably hold all-day outdoor events.)

Complications still arise, whether it’s a particular city or a time of year.

“When we go to New York, we always have some trouble,” Barberan said. “New York doesn’t want the Nets on-site. It’s stuff like that. Once we get deeper into the summer and once teams are gone, it slows down. But we do have good relationships with the teams.”

This year, a new issue could have arisen in Phoenix and Denver, both of which welcomed Cinco De Mayo celebrations for the sizable Hispanic audiences that made it to each site. The controversial immigration bill recently signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer into state law in late April has reached the field of sports — there is public pressure for Major League Baseball to remove the planned 2011 All-Star Game from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field in Phoenix — but that topic was not noticeable at the Phoenix event, according to the NBA.

Instead, the NBA celebrated a Hispanic fan base that has garnered more attention in recent years, highlighted by the ‘Los’ jerseys worn by several NBA teams this season.

“In the first year [of NBA Nation], we definitely didn’t focus on the Hispanic market,” Barberan said. “The NBA in the last two years has made that [demographic] a primary focus.”

And that’s exactly why NBA Nation has become a valuable addition to the NBA brand. Rather than connect with the League through Twitter or buying merchandise at NBAStore.com, fans can enjoy an NBA event in person. And they can even see the biggest basketball-themed tractor trailer they’ll probably ever encounter.