Beyond Yao and Yi
Updated: 2013-04-19 08:44
By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)
Even without the legendary giant Yao Ming, the NBA is thriving in China. It's now on a mission to cultivate both the game and Chinese youth in the country.
When Yao Ming, the first player from China to successfully cross over to the National Basketball Association, announced his retirement in July 2011, the world of basketball in the Middle Kingdom went silent.
Pundits predicted the NBA's popularity and rampant growth in the country would dive. The spotlight on Yi Jianlian, then a role player in the Washington Wizards, was fading. Interest in Yao's former NBA team, the Houston Rockets, began to wane.
And when Yi returned to the CBA last season, the NBA was left without a Chinese player for the first time in a decade.
But the NBA is still Commissioner David Stern's league. The man who turned basketball into the most popular sport after soccer and globalized the game has persistently kept the league vibrant in China, despite the absence of Chinese players.
"We feel confident that basketball will still be the No 1 among all Chinese sports fans," Stern says.
He has kept the NBA growing in China thanks to moves in four pivotal directions: organizing preseason and exhibition NBA games in China, beefing up its media presence, engaging fans on and offline, and creating programs that instill social responsibility.
According to NBA China, based in Beijing, league viewership is rising across many platforms, including TV and social media, while this year's revenue from merchandise is almost two times higher compared to the past five years combined.
Viewership of live games on Sina.com and average daily page views during the first half of this season were 172 percent and 36 percent, respectively, higher than the same period last season.
Stern says even with the loss of Yao and Yi, it isn't vital to have a Chinese player in the NBA to keep the league popular in China. The loyalty of Chinese fans to the game, he says, is strong enough to stand on its own.
"To me, no disrespect, the Chinese fans are sophisticated. They just want to see the best stars (wherever the stars are from). For us, the long-term growth in China and the popularity of the NBA will come from the fans, who understand our game and follow our stars," Stern says.
Stern's heir apparent, the current NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, echoed his boss' sentiment.
"No doubt, to have great Chinese players (in NBA) will accelerate the game's growth. Again, fans are sophisticated and seem to love the great teams the same way that fans do everywhere," Silver said during a tour of China last month to promote this upcoming season's preseason games.
The Los Angeles Clippers beat Miami Heat 99-89 in a preseason game in Shanghai in October last year. Cui Meng / China Daily
Highlights of a vision
When Stern took office as commissioner in 1984, he saw a huge, untapped market across the Pacific. The priority? To gain exposure.
In 1987, he knocked on the doors of China Central Television with tapes of highlights and a humble demeanor, hoping the national television station would air NBA games.
Fast forward to today: In the 26 years since then, Stern's initial vision has gone far beyond what he hoped for. Last year, NBA and CCTV renewed their partnership to deliver more games and featured programs in China. According to the new deal, each week CCTV-5 will air four live games and two tape-delayed matches as well as an NBA Primetime show. During the shortened 2011-12 season, CCTV only offered two live games on weekends.
"To bring more live games is to meet the audience's need. Basketball broadcasts are one of the most popular programs on CCTV-5," says channel director Jiang Heping.
Buoyed by the CCTV exposure, NBA games and programs have been ideal marketing platforms for advertisers such as P&G, Peak Sports and Dongfeng Motors.
"Our new collaboration with CCTV will provide the highest quality original productions and customized shows for fans as well as unique branded opportunities for advertisers," says NBA China CEO David Shoemaker.
Stern has also brought the Chinese culture to the US. To present its second annual Chinese New Year celebration this season, the league held celebrations of traditional Chinese culture during halftime of games in five cities, including Washington, Miami and Oakland. It also provided a holiday broadcast of 23 live games during the eight-day span of the Spring Festival in China. The second annual edition reached a total of 107 million fans on TV and digital media in China, up 11 percent from last year.
Former Sacramento Kings' forward Peja Stojakovic and WNBA player Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx hosted a viewing party with fans in Beijing on Feb 8. Stojakovic also visited a lucky fan's home in Beijing for a New Year's Eve dinner.