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NBA Poised For Success in China

The setting was electric, as thousands of manic fans gathered for the game.  With a constantly high decibel level maintained, fans were cheering and chanting throughout supporting their team, and their player.  No, this wasn’t a playoff game.  This type of energy, and all its surrounding hype, was reserved for an NBA  preseason game. 

Usually preseason basketball games are nothing to get excited about.  Unless, of course, they involve the homecoming of China’s 7-foot-5 prodigal son.  The Houston Rockets, featuring China’s all-star 7’5” center, Yao Ming, had played the Sacramento Kings in two preseason exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing this past week.  This has been the first NBA game to be played in China since 1979, when the Washington Bullets traveled there for some exhibition games.  But the hype generated from these games was exponentially higher than in 1979.  A lot has changed in China, including the emergence of Yao Ming.  Never had a meaningless game meant so much.  Commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, who is largely responsible for the enormous growth of the NBA, and the popularization of basket, said, These games represent to us, the NBA, a historic occasion.

China had sent its most prized athletic jewel to Houston, and the NBA returned the favor, bringing Yao Ming back — at least for a few manic days — and thereby making an ordinary preseason game extraordinary.

It was amazing, Rockets guard Tracy McGrady (a superstar in his own right) said.  I had to sit back and take it all in. I couldn’t believe how people react to him, the true support he gets, the love they have for him. He’s international. He’s an icon. He’s huge.  

Stern has always felt that China was an untapped market.  China was always seen as a potentially important market down the road, he said.  He continued, I think it’s fair to say Yao Ming is the most important thing in the world for the development of the NBA in China that has ever occurred.  With Yao Ming, this is even more extraordinary.  But it would be historic with any NBA team. More than even that, however, it electrified a country.

Stern’s has been extremely effective in his efforts to internationalize the basketball, and promote the NBA, basketball’s greatest league.  Currently, NBA telecasts are available in 205 countries and 43 languages.  Fifty-percent of the visitors to the league’s website, NBA.com, come from outside the USA.  Since 1991, the league has staged a season-opening game in Japan while holding exhibitions in Barcelona, Madrid, London, Munich, Rome, Milan and Paris.  We have literally been all over the world, but we haven’t been to China, Stern says.  It’s time for us to address that market.

Like everything else about professional sports these days, the NBA’s entrance into the Chinese markets is driven by commerce.  Marquee American brands such as Disney, Budweiser, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, all with major business interests here, are involved in the games as sponsors.  A nation of 1.3 billion people, including a fast-growing middle class, with an increasing amount of disposable income, represents too lucrative a market for the league or its corporate allies to ignore.  Stern is positive that the NBA will be make a major impact in the Chinese sports markets, as the game is already well established here.

China had already had a long relationship with basketball.  Five years after Dr. James Naismith invented the game, missionaries brought it to China.  Although China has been through many cultural and social changes throughout the past century, basketball has remained a popular pastime to many.  And its popularity has significantly increased with the rise of Yao.  A 2003 survey showed 75% of Chinese males between 15 and 24 years old were interested in the basketball, says Tan Kefei, editor of the new basketball magazine Ally Opps.  Many fans are now obsessed with tracking Yao’s progress in the US, and NBA games are televised on 14 Chinese channels, including state-run CCTV.