NBA does a slam-dunk in China

More than 30 years ago, the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion started play­ing games in China. Now the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try is its fastest-grow­ing in­ter­na­tional mar­ket, MAY ZHOU re­ports from Hous­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

TYao Ming

“There have been a num­ber of im­por­tant events in the de­vel­op­ment of the game in China, and per­haps none is more im­por­tant than in 2002 when Yao Ming got drafted by the Hous­ton Rock­ets,’’ Shoe­maker said dur­ing a phone in­ter­view from Bei­jing.

“There were other Chi­nese bas­ket­ball play­ers in the league be­fore Yao, and there will be oth­ers af­ter him, but I can’t think of one per­son who had a more pro­found im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of the NBA in China.”

The Hous­ton Rock­ets drafted the 7-foot6-inch Yao be­cause team owner “Les­lie Alexan­der and the bas­ket­ball oper­a­tion staff re­al­ized that Yao had the po­ten­tial of be­ing the best player in the world,’’ said Tad Brown, CEO of the Rock­ets.

“We al­ways look to bring the best play­ers to the team. In the case of Yao, he just hap­pens to have this unique talent and is from China which would open up the re­la­tion­ship with the en­tire re­gion (China) for the Rock­ets and NBA. That kind of in­te­grated re­la­tion­ship has never hap­pened be­fore.”

For a decade, Yao ful­filled Alexan­der’s vi­sion of be­ing an in­cred­i­ble player. On top of that, “Yao had the abil­ity for the NBA to re­ally ex­pand its Chi­nese pres­ence and its fan base,” Brown said.

Brown said that while Yao was with the he num­bers tell the story.

On the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion’s of­fi­cial blog in China — nba — 27.5 mil­lion fans. On the league’s web­site in China — China — 8.6 mil­lion reg­is­tered fans. There are 70 mil­lion NBA fol­low­ers on Sina Weibo, Ten­cent Weibo, Ten­cent Qzone and Ten­cent WeChat.

And the fan num­bers have made China the No 1 in­ter­na­tional mar­ket for the NBA.

“Bas­ket­ball and the NBA have never been more pop­u­lar in China,’’ said NBA China CEO David Shoe­maker. “As I over­see our busi­ness here, I see 300 mil­lion people play­ing bas­ket­ball.” That num­ber is ap­prox­i­mately the pop­u­la­tion of the US. Then there are the rev­enue num­bers. In 2012, NBA China’s rev­enue was $150 mil­lion, the then NBA Com­mis­sioner David Stern told Bloomberg News. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Forbes re­port, rev­enue for NBA China is ex­pected to ap­proach $200 mil­lion with sig­nif­i­cant growth po­ten­tial.

The NBA leads all ma­jor sports leagues in the US on in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion. In China, it’s an ef­fec­tive tool for multi­na­tional and US com­pa­nies to mar­ket prod­ucts and ser­vices to the world’s most pop­u­lous na­tion, and it’s used by Chi­nese com­pa­nies to mar­ket prod­ucts and ser­vices in the US.

The NBA started play­ing in China in 1979 when the Wash­ing­ton Bul­lets took on China’s na­tional bas­ket­ball team at the in­vi­ta­tion of Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing. Few fore­saw then when China and the US es­tab­lished for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions that one day China would play the leading role in the NBA’s in­ter­na­tional growth. Rock­ets it had five to 10 Chi­nese cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships, and those num­bers have stayed steady since Yao left be­cause a base has been built and the Yao fac­tor lingers.

“We cur­rently have seven cor­po­rate spon­sors from the Asian re­gion and by the end of this round, there will be a few more on board,” Brown said.

Yao’s im­pact went be­yond the Rock­ets and the NBA. His fel­low play­ers also ben­e­fited from his pop­u­lar­ity in China. In those days, “one of the locker room jokes was to get a great shoe deal you have to play within 10 feet of Yao Ming,” Brown said. “Most of our for­mer guys were signed by one of the Chi­nese shoe com­pa­nies, and it continues to­day.”

The NBA was look­ing to China long be­fore Yao joined the Rock­ets. The league es­tab­lished a part­ner­ship with China’s CCTV 27 years ago to broad­cast NBA games in China by start­ing with weekly high­lights of NBA games in ex­change for ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue, which at first was al­most nonex­is­tent. Nev­er­the­less, the NBA got ex­po­sure. With Yao on the Rock­ets and the frenzy he sparked in China, mo­men­tum for the NBA grew and TV view­er­ship soared.

Ac­cord­ing to Ex­port­ing Sports En­ter­tain­ment: The NBA in China, a paper by New York Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Luis Cabral, in the first cou­ple of years when Yao was on the Rock­ets, a tele­vised game was viewed by 1 mil­lion people in the US. But the same game “would reg­u­larly at­tract up to 30 mil­lion view­ers in China, mak­ing the Hous­ton Rock­ets China’s fa­vorite team”.

“CCTV is our long­est and proud­est part­ner­ship, show­ing five games a week in China cur­rently,’’ Shoe­mak­ers said. “We also have a hand­ful of re­gional based TV sta­tions like Shang­hai Me­dia Group, BesTV, Bei­jing TV, Guang­dong TV and Chongqing Satel­lite TV.” The NBA also has a few TV part­ner­ships in Hong Kong Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion and Tai­wan.

TV view­er­ship of NBA games in the Chi­nese main­land has grown tremen­dously. Ear­lier this year, when the NBA held its third Chi­nese New Year cel­e­bra­tion, it reached 116 mil­lion view­ers with 23 live games played in China, ac­cord­ing to league data.

Be­sides TV, NBA China is also stream­ing its games live or on de­mand through two In­ter­net gi­ants, Sina and Ten­cent. View­er­ship for the dig­i­tal plat­form has been grow­ing by dou­ble dig­its an­nu­ally.

To sat­isfy Chi­nese fans, the NBA staged games be­tween league teams in 2004.

“We have done a to­tal of 16 games in greater China and ev­ery sin­gle one has been sold out. All games were played at the first-class venues,” Shoe­maker said.

The first NBA game in China took place in Oc­to­ber 2004, when the Hous­ton Rock­ets and the Sacra­mento Kings played pre­sea­son games in Bei­jing and Shang­hai. Mar­ket­ing part­ners for those games in­cluded Bud­weiser, Coca-Cola, Dis­ney­land, Ko­dak, McDon­ald’s and Ree­bok.

In 2007, NBA games re­turned to China and con­tin­ued ev­ery year with the ex­cep­tion of 2011. Last year, af­ter play­ing twice on the Chi­nese main­land, the Hous­ton Rock­ets played against the In­di­ana Pac­ers in Taipei, un­doubt­edly try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the Jeremy Lin fac­tor among the Taiwanese fans. Lin’s par­ents em­i­grated to the US from Tai­wan. “We think our pre­sea­son games are a won­der­ful way to show­case our games in China to fans, and I per­ceive we will con­tinue to do that for some time,” Shoe­maker said. TV games

The NBA also ex­plored tele­vis­ing games in the US that in­volved Chi­nese play­ers. In Novem­ber 2007, a live tele­cast of Rock­ets’ star Yao against Milwaukee Bucks’ rookie Yi Jian­lian in the Chi­nese play­ers’ first NBA matchup was such a sen­sa­tion that Brown couldn’t help shak­ing his head while talk­ing about it.

“That game we played here at the Toy­ota Cen­ter was the most watched sports event of the year, more than the Su­per Bowl. That was crazy,” he said. By var­i­ous ac­counts, the game at­tracted roughly 250 mil­lion view­ers world­wide.

Shoe­maker sees NBA China’s dig­i­tal me­dia as a cru­cial com­po­nent of busi­ness and raved about it:

“I am es­pe­cially proud of our dig­i­tal busi­ness which con­nects us with fans dig­i­tally. And through our part­ner­ship with Sina and Ten­cent, our games aver­age a mil­lion view­ers, and col­lec­tively, we have 70 mil­lion fans and fol­low­ers on our mi­croblogs on Sina and Ten­cent.”

Shoe­maker said he views Sina as a very com­pre­hen­sive part­ner­ship, work­ing to­gether to op­er­ate the NBA’s 30 team sites and mi­cro blogs, the Sina NBA sec­tion, the broad­cast of a daily live game and the sale of cer­tain types of mer­chan­dise, while the Ten­cent plat­form fo­cuses more on con­tent, games, high­lights and WeChat.

Shoe­maker il­lus­trated the NBA’s pop­u­lar­ity on dig­i­tal plat­forms with an ex­am­ple: Hous­ton Rock­ets’ player Chan­dler Parsons re­cently did a Weibo chat; he re­ceived more than 1,000 ques­tions and gen­er­ated 8.6 mil­lion im­pres­sions through­out China on Weibo.

NBA China also has on­line game part­ners to keep fans in­ter­ested in their games.

“A com­pany called Take 2 is do­ing an NBA on­line game, and there are 16 mil­lion fans reg­is­tered to play that game on­line in China. An­other com­pany DeNA re­cently launched NBA: My Dream mo­bile-phone game with 7 mil­lion reg­is­tered fans in a very short pe­riod of time,” Shoe­maker said.

Ac­cord­ing to a Chi­nese news re­port, DeNA’s NBA mo­bile game brought in $320,000 within two hours of its re­lease and rev­enue of more than $1.6 mil­lion in 14 days. It was so suc­cess­ful that NBA Se­nior Vice-Pres­i­dent Robert Millman vis­ited DeNA’s Shang­hai head­quar­ters to dis­cuss long-term part­ner re­la­tions.

While ap­pre­ci­at­ing the NBA’s part­ners’ “in­cred­i­ble com­mit­ment to deliver the game for us to fans and con­sumers,” Shoe­maker said that NBA China also en­joys a good re­la­tion­ship with the Chi­nese govern­ment and other en­ti­ties such as the Chi­nese Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion (CBA).

“It starts at the very top. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping vis­ited Los Angeles Lak­ers’ games against the Phoenix Suns two years ago. Xi was kind enough to men­tion that he thought the NBA is a great sport and an in­spi­ra­tional game. Xi even said he likes to watch NBA games when he has the time,’’ Shoe­maker said. “Last Novem­ber, Vi­cePremier Liu Yan­dong at­tended the Chicago Bull games. NBA Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver and Yao Ming hosted Madam Liu at this game. She said she is to be a fan of the game and how much fun it was for her to get a chance to see it.”

“We trained over 600 coaches in the last three years for the CBA,” Shoe­maker said. In 2011, the CBA Dong­guan Bas­ket­ball School was set up in Dong­guang, Guang­dong prov­ince as an NBA train­ing cen­ter to de­velop elite young bas­ket­ball talent in China from the ages of 12 to 17. So far, the school has trained more than 1,200 play­ers and coaches.

NBA China also part­nered with Yao Ming in 2012 af­ter he re­tired from the Rock­ets.

“We work with him on var­i­ous bas­ket­ball ini­tia­tives,’’ said Shoe­maker. “Just last month, NBA China and Yao formed NBA Yao School, which pro­vides af­ter-school bas­ket­ball train­ing and fit­ness pro­grams for boys and girls up to age 16.” Sports com­plax

The NBA also is build­ing a $1.5 bil­lion, 2,300-acre sports and en­ter­tain­ment su­per­struc­ture on the out­skirts of Bei­jing.

De­spite Yao Ming’s re­tire­ment, the NBA’s pop­u­lar­ity in China did not sink as many pre­dicted. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port by NYU’s Cabral, “Since the ini­tial in­ter­est in bas­ket­ball has been ce­mented by Yao’s legacy, China no longer needs an in­di­vid­ual player to point to for gar­ner­ing in­ter­est.” It re­ported that video stream­ing for the NBA in China climbed to 3.2 bil­lion from 1.2 bil­lion in the 2012-2013 sea­son over the last sea­son.

And when the phe­nom­e­non of “Lin­san­ity’’ ap­peared in 2012 and the re­cruit­ment of Jeremy Lin by the Hous­ton Rock­ets oc­curred in 2013, it cer­tainly did not hurt the NBA in China, and it helped to gen­er­ate more mer­chan­dise sales in Tai­wan. Lin, a Taiwanese/Chi­nese Amer­i­can, might be par­tially re­spon­si­ble for the Rock­ets’ re­cent deal with the Tai­wan Tourism Bureau to be­gin an in­te­grated mar­ket­ing part­ner­ship in Jan­uary 2014.

What is the NBA’s big­gest chal­lenge now in China?

“Keep­ing up with the in­cred­i­ble ap­petite that the Chi­nese people have for the NBA,’’ Sheo­maker said. “It means we need to make sure to put the right num­ber of games out there across the coun­try, to con­tinue to be on the cut­ting edge of dig­i­tal me­dia so that our fans can in­ter­act with us in in­no­va­tive ways. It means bring­ing in NBA teams on an an­nual ba­sis to China and par­tic­i­pat­ing in global games. That’s the chal­lenge we have, to meet the ap­petite, and we think we are do­ing a very good job.”

Con­tact the writer at mayzhou@chi­nadai­


Los Angeles Lak­ers su­per­star Kobe Bryant (left) and NBA China CEO David Shoe­maker present NBA Global Games Shang­hai game tick­ets to two lucky fans in Shang­hai in 2013.

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