Huge bet on the CBA

Updated: 2012-11-26 18:59

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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Firm invests $270 million in hope league's popularity will soar soon.

Philippe Blatter is thinking long term.

The president and CEO of Swiss-based marketing group Infront Sports & Media shrugged off financial losses at the beginning of the firm's seven-year partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association, signing on for five more seasons.

Blatter said he believes strongly in the league's future.

"I think it has the potential to be one of the most successful and valuable sports leagues worldwide in the long run," Blatter told China Daily before the tip-off of the season opener between the Beijing Ducks and Shanghai Sharks in Beijing last Saturday.

Since joining up with the CBA in 2005, Infront has played a significant role in marketing the league's commercial rights, optimizing media coverage and developing the league in an effort to raise its international appeal.

At the end of last season, a cumulative TV audience of over 700 million had been reached, almost a 130-percent increase since 2005, according to Blatter.

The league's once-forgettable All-Star Game has become an eye-catching product in some of the country's state-of-the-art stadiums, like Beijing's MasterCard Center and Guangzhou's International Sports Arena. Last season, the game lured a record TV audience for the second consecutive season, reaching 100 million viewers.

None of that was enough for Infront to turn significant profits, but Blatter isn't worried

"We are investing in China for long-term success, not to gain short-term profit," he said. "It takes time to develop a great product and we are definitely on the right track."

He inked an extension worth $270 million, according to the Beijing Morning News, which will keep the partnership alive for another five years.

"(The amount of money involved) shows the league's huge potential," he said. "It's not just increasing financial commitment. It's also a lot to do with know-how, expertise, innovation and passion that we invest. This is the most important value Infront adds.

"I believe the next five years will be the time when we can jointly reap the fruits from all the efforts we made over the past seven years."

Blatter attributed his faith in the future to the increasing quality of the competition and support from sponsors.

"First the product — it's an exciting competition with national and international stars coming from the NBA, which is proof that the league has been recognized by the basketball world," he said.

The CBA's 17 teams have imported 36 foreign players - including 28 NBA veterans — this season.

"More important, 21 of them already have CBA experience. That means they like to be here because the level of play is high and they love the fans here," Blatter said.

Blatter awarded a championship ring to Stephon Marbury, who led Beijing to the CBA title last season, at a ceremony on Saturday night.

The CBA will enjoy a more consistent TV presence this season, with CCTV-5 delivering four live games plus three tape-delayed matchups every week, aiming to surpass last season's total of 2,912 hours of coverage.

More media exposure lured 23 sponsors, including equipment manufacturer Li Ning, which signed a five-year, $321 million deal.

"The record Li-Ning agreement shows there is no better commercial and communication platform than the CBA today in China," Blatter said. "With all these ingredients, I am very confident the league will continue to grow stronger. It is already now on par with other major international properties."

The CBA is happy with the partnership.

"Over the past seven years, the CBA has made progress in terms of athletic performance, commercial value and social impact," said vice-chairman Xin Lancheng. "Infront has been a key partner in this process and shares the association's vision regarding long-term development."

Blatter said there are plenty of ways to improve the league over the remainder of the deal.

"We want to raise the standard of the sponsor service, we want to improve our sponsors' connection with the fan base," he said. "Also, we plan to optimize the media production standards for all games. As a first step, starting this season, the TV production of CBA games will all be delivered with a consistent production standard. For the first time, the lighting in all venues will be the same level, which meets the broadcasters' demands.

"Based on these improvements, we are very optimistic we can attract a larger audience and further improve viewing figures, also internationally. I am sure the best is yet to come for Chinese basketball."