Beijing—Judging by the ubiquitous NBA jerseys spotted around Chinese cities and the dozens of busy courts at pretty much every Chinese university, basketball is hugely popular here. Statistics are always suspect in this fragmented, chaotic and exciting place, but NBA China estimates that 300 million people in the country “play basketball.”
“None of [our member countries] inspires the same kind of excitement for our game as China does,” said Patrick Baumann, secretary general of FIBA, the International Federation of Basketball.
But on their own, a bunch of kids throwing up bricks on the playground won’t boost the bottom line of NBA China or the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Leaders of those organizations, along with FIBA’s Baumann and one member of the local sports media spoke Monday night in a panel discussion about how they plan to turn the sport’s growth here into big business. The event, “The Future of Basketball in China,” was hosted by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business at the China World Hotel.
The panelists—Baumann; Li Yuanwei, vice president of the CBA; Tim Chen, CEO of NBA China; and Xu Jichen, director of sports for Xinhua News Agency—were as bullish on basketball’s prospects in China as they were on future Chinese basketball prospects. They discussed restructuring the CBA, arena development, NBA China’s marketing strategies and the search for the next NBA-caliber Chinese player.
Unspoken but implied throughout the event was the expectation that within five to 10 years, professional basketball in China will be primarily an NBA product, although it seems any takeover of the CBA will be a friendly one. And within a much shorter timeframe, NBA fans stateside will probably have to tune in in the morning to catch a regular season game played in Beijing.
“Maybe one day we’ll see half the season in the United States, half the season in China,” said Xu Jichen, director of sports for Xinhua News Agency. “Or maybe the All-Star Game will be played here.” His comments drew nervous laughter from Chen and Li—surely they have some bold moves in their long-term vision, but it’s still too early to discuss them publicly.
A New CBA
One thing that was discussed was fixing the CBA. Li Yuanwei, vice president and secretary-general of the CBA explained a five-year plan, to begin after the Olympics, to improve the business model of the league. He talked about transitioning it to operate more like the NBA, with franchises that are run independently but answer to a central management organization.
“The existing operation and management system has become inconsistent with the effective management of the league,” Li said. Conventional wisdom has it, and Li’s speech seemed to indirectly affirm, that professional basketball and soccer in China has long been crippled by corruption. Corporate sponsors figure too heavily in decision-making, would-be profits go to various “sports administrations” of questionable legitimacy and teams are eventually run into the ground.
Some of Li’s measures for improving the CBA echo China’s own measures undertaken decades ago to improve its economy: allow market forces to play a bigger role; enhance exposure to international players, leagues and coaches; actively develop a market for the league.
Searching for the Next Yao
Yao Ming is certainly not the only NBA player that young Chinese fans know—Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant (to name a few), are all widely popular here. But Yao’s success in the NBA and his marketability since he was drafted in 2002 gave a boost to the league’s popularity in China.
Yi Jianlian, coming off of a serviceable rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks, is helping to prove that Yao isn’t just an anomaly. The panelists agreed that there must be plenty more talent here waiting to be discovered. They also agreed that China needs a much better system for developing that talent.
A bigger challenge at the moment might be finding guards who can be effective internationally. The first Chinese hoops export, Wang Zhizhi, was a center; Yao Ming is a center; Yi Jianlian is a forward. That’s no accident, Li said.
“Recently, in sports schools, short players were eliminated early and coaches focused on the big men,” he explained. Developing quality post players is easier to do without a mature basketball culture. Find the athletic big guys, drill them relentlessly on post moves and get them as strong as possible. But guards need a higher basketball IQ and more decision-making skills.
“The key for those players [guards] is to have a regular league that is long and tough,” Baumann said. “In the USA and in Europe, you are a developed player at the one or two [guard position] at the age of 14 or 15.”
Li added that a lack of proper conditioning was another problem among young players: “Right now we do not have effective stamina training at the grass roots level.”
What Exactly Does “Grass Roots” Mean?
So what is the plan to raise the level of play? Li’s talk of more international exchanges should be helpful. And seasoned foreign coaches are finding their own ways to interact with China. Former Seattle Supersonics coach Tom Newell began coaching in the CBA last year (he keeps a blog here).
And John Calipari, whose Memphis Tigers reached the finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year with a roster stocked with international players, is making major efforts at interchange with the Chinese basketball community. Memphis hosted a camp last October for 15 Chinese coaches and last fall, he signed an agreement with the CBA to run five camps a year in China. Calipari is one of the most respected active coaches and the winner of this year’s Naismith Award for the best college basketball coach in the United States.
Li also frequently mentioned improvement at the “grass roots” level, and both he and Chen cited the government’s commitment to continue building courts. It wasn’t clear, however, what Li actually saw as the “grass roots” of basketball in China. For decades, government-run sports schools have dominated youth athletics. Any plan to foster more well-rounded players will need to include more organic programs. Such programs, incidentally, can easily attract investment (ABCD Camp China, anyone?)
Different Strokes: Marketing strategies
Building interest basketball isn’t a goodwill program, of course. NBA China’s initial valuation is USD $2.3 billion, and five strategic investors including ESPN and Bank of China have bought 11 percent of that value. Last fall, Chen was hired away from his role as CEO of Microsoft Greater China to lead the league’s business operations here.
Chen, who also worked for Motorola in China, talked about some ways that the NBA will have to take a different approach to marketing in China.
He spoke of the tremendous potential that China holds for online and mobile marketing, “We have more means of putting content into people’s hands,” he said. He added that signing domestic companies to new media campaigns is tougher than it is with multinationals. “Most Chinese companies just want to get on TV or sponsor a game.”
The NBA’s retail plans for China include opening 5,000 NBA stores around the country. This is very different from its approach in the United States, where it only has one store, a showcase on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Adidas and Nike already use this different strategy in China. Nike, for example, only has 14 of its stores in the United States, and only two states, Oregon (where the company is based) and California, have more than one store. Adidas has only 20 stores in the United States. In China, you can find a dozen Nike stores in one second-tier city like Kunming or Chengdu.
The NBA, Niketown and Adidas stores in the United States are essentially display cases for the latest in sports apparel. With high-concept store design, they serve as destinations where Americans go to take photos, check out new products and maybe make a purchase. The majority of the companies’ products, however, are sold in chains like Foot Locker, The Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Without such a third-party network in China, sports apparel brands have mostly chosen to take the products directly to the consumer.
The Main Event
Another initiative Chen and company have been tasked with is to improve China’s basketball infrastructure. NBA commissioner David Stern has cited the lack of sufficient facilities as one barrier to the NBA being more active in China, so facility construction is a priority. The NBA took a major first step when it supervised the building of the Olympic basketball venue, Wukesong Basketball Arena, modeled after Houston’s Toyota Center. After the games, NBA China will continue to play a big role in Wukesong’s operation. Chen said he hopes to place similar venues in Shanghai, Guangzhou and a few other Chinese cities over the next several years.
Sizing Up the Competition
Chen said that basketball has overtaken football (soccer) as China’s most popular “big ball” sport (“small ball” being table tennis, badminton, etc.). “Ten years ago, football was very big,” he said. “But now 50 percent of young Chinese watch basketball and 36 percent watch football. Thirty percent play basketball, and 16 percent play football.”
Again, marketing data is always suspect, but an informal accounting of the sports scene here indicates that basketball has plenty of competition from soccer. Titan Sports, the country’s biggest sports newspaper, gives both sports pretty equal attention. However, basketball has three papers dedicated specifically to it, compared to just one for soccer. Basketball courts are easier to fit into an urban landscape, and you will see plenty of courts here. But there is often a soccer field nearby as well.
Chen said he doesn’t see it as a winner-take-all competition: “China is so big, there is room for a lot of sports. Soccer has a lot of fans, golf has a lot of fans.”
Images: Yaomingmania.com, Xinhua.net
Tags: basketball, FIBA, NBA