New commissioner, same love for China

Updated: 2013-03-28 07:41

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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Silver will continue trying to grow NBA here once Stern retires

The NBA's heir apparent has vowed to maintain the game's rapid growth in China after commissioner David Stern's retirement next year.

Stern, the NBA's longest-serving commissioner, has spent more than 20 years driving the league from virtual obscurity to huge popularity in China since he knocked on the country's door in 1987 with highlight tapes and a humble demeanor.

With Stern planning to retire next February, the question is how will it be possible for his successor to top what the former New York lawyer did in the league's biggest overseas market.

The NBA's deputy commissioner, Adam Silver, Stern's chosen successor, admits it will be a challenging task but is confident he can run the business with more of an insight into the China market than his mentor had decades ago.

"David Stern did not have the benefit, like I have had. When I came into the NBA, I learned the industry from the way he did things," Silver told China Daily during a visit to Shanghai on Friday to promote this year's preseason games in China.

With promotions on multiple levels, the NBA has enjoyed a surge in popularity in China, despite the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. TV ratings were up, while social media traffic and merchandising figures continue to soar.

New commissioner, same love for China

"I know I have big shoes to fill," Silver said. "But I have the benefit of inheriting a wonderful business that David and all our colleagues have created. I have a much broader team than he had."

Silver said he will rely on a well-developed organization and seasoned executives to keep the business soaring.

After joining the league in 1992 as Stern's special assistant, Silver has played various roles including president of NBA Entertainment and chief of staff, and has been instrumental in many accomplishments, such as working out a collective bargaining agreement with the players' union, which saved the 2011-12 season.

Experience in the US aside, Silver needs to build his profile in China, where he is a virtual unknown.

The New Yorker has often visited China in Stern's company, meeting local officials, media and renowned figures like Yao Ming, while also bringing some of the league's top teams to China in recent years.

Following in Stern's shadow, Silver said he would love to be remembered for his "ability to grow the league the same way that David did".

"He will go down as one of the greatest sports commissioners ever. He very much created the modern sports industry as we know it," Silver said.

Apparently, one thing Silver has learned from Stern is to engage Chinese fans with live NBA experiences, as he announced the two NBA teams that will be in China later this year.

The Golden State Warriors will play two preseason games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the perennial fan favorites in China, in Beijing and Shanghai on Oct 15 and 18.

Last year's matchups between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers drew huge crowds in both cities, with the price of scalped tickets often tripling the face value.

"We expect these games to be sold out almost the moment we put the tickets on sale," Silver said.

However, moving a regular-season game to China was unrealistic, he said, citing logistical issues.

"The geographical distance from the US to China (is a problem). Our season is very tightly scheduled, so we need to figure out a way that the players can be rested and then return to play in the US (after playing in China). It's something we continue to look at."

Another challenge Silver faces is the absence of Chinese players on current NBA rosters after Yi Jianlian returned to the CBA following Yao's retirement.

Silver believes the league's fan base in China has become strong and loyal enough to stand on its own.

"It's no question that to have Chinese players would help accelerate the game's growth here, but the fans are sophisticated and they want to see the best teams, not just Chinese players," he said.

Thanks to the arrival of NBA-caliber players, the CBA has gained more star power and emerged as a potential threat to the NBA's popularity with local hoops fans.

However, Silver doesn't regard the CBA as a rival to the NBA.

"We enjoy seeing the movement of players from the NBA to the CBA. It provides opportunities for NBA players and top-notch basketball for Chinese fans," he said.

"We consider the success of the CBA to be the success of the NBA as well."

(China Daily 03/28/2013 page22)