The New Jersey Nets are going to be big in China—just ask the New Jersey Nets. Judging from his comments in a recent New York Times piece inspired by the Nets’ trip to Russia and China, Nets CEO Brett Yormark believes the Nets are destined to build a huge fan base in China. The story is called For the Nets, a Journey Toward Becoming a Global Brand Has Just Begun
Michael Wines writes:
“Brett Yormark is talking about the incredible global marketing potential of the New Jersey Nets, a concept — New Jersey, the Nets and global marketing potential — that might seem unlikely until you hear his pitch, and remember that two years from now, they will probably be the New York Nets.
Or the New York-London Nets. Or maybe the Newyorkmoscowlondonbeijing Nets.”
Yes, the Nets have had the most international pre-season of any NBA team, with visits to Russia and China. And next spring, they will take on the Toronto Raptors in the first NBA regualr season games to be played outside of North America. And their new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is a Russian billionaire. But when it comes to China, despite a year with a Chinese player on their roster, the Nets lack a strong following.
I can’t comment as to the Nets’ situation in the UK or Russia. But after an historically bad season in 2009-10, they traded away their best link to China, when they sent Yi Jianlian to the Washington Wizards in May. Dropping Yi will mean the team loses much of its media exposure on the mainland, where having a Chinese player on your roster means free air time—magazine features on him and his teammates, regular columns and sections in the sports newspapers dedicated to your franchise, highlights on the evening news every time he’s in a game, and a higher percentage of your games broadcast. That all goes to the Washington Wizards, whose rookie John Wall is sure to sell lots of jerseys in Yi’s home province, Guangdong.
The Yi trade was largely considered a move to create cap space for then-soon-to-be free agent Lebron James, which would have helped address the team’s second problem in China, which is also a problem in the United States—the fact that they have never won an NBA championship.
But apparently Nets CEO Yormark thinks that the team has a unique appeal that will translate to international success. Wines quotes Yormark:
“I’ve been in the business now for 20-plus years, and I don’t think there’s a franchise in any sport right now that has the type of clarity and ‘runway,’ as I call it, over the course of the next couple of years, as we do.”
Prokhorov not only predicts a playoff appearance this year, and a title within five. He also says: “This will be the first truly global team in the NBA, with exceptional international exposure no other team can reach.” (NJ.com)
In actuality, the Nets are far from a big hit in China, and the team has revealed no plans that are likely to change that. If a visit to Beijing translated into a new fan base, you would see a lot more Nuggets and Pacers jerseys around the city (those two teams played the NBA China Games in the 2009 preseason).
The teams that are big in China, according to three years of informal polling by yours truly, are the Los Angeles Lakers (recent championship, one of the best two players in the league), Houston Rockets (Yao Ming) and Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan, 90s run of championships). The Boston Celtics (recent championship) and San Antonio Spurs (recent championships, first Chinese player to win an NBA championship) are on the second tier. Even the Dallas Mavericks seem to have faded in popularity, despite being the first NBA team to welcome a Chinese player, drafting Wang Zhizhi in 1999.
In sports, as in other business, there seems to be an over exuberant belief in what a visit to China can do for your brand. Fans can be forgiven for thinking that all China needs is to see their team up close, and they’ll fall in love. It’s not that simple—the trip is only a first step, and will amount to nothing without a strategic, long-term approach.
If the Nets want to boost their image in China, they’ll need to put the right spin on their upcoming move. I love Brooklyn, but most Chinese people do not. Every conversation I have had with Chinese friends about the borough indicates that most regard it as dirty and dangerous. It’s not an image that can be changed with an ad campaign or a flashy new arena. The New York Nets would be much more palatable to Beijingers, but while you’re changing the name, why not take advantage of the opportunity to call yourself something more exciting? Would Dragons or Tigers be a pathetically obvious overture to China?
Yi Jianlian Nets image: fjsen.com
Tags: Mikhail Prokhorov, NBA, New Jersey Nets, Yi Jianlian