Bouncing back

NBA goes on charm offensive

Bouncing back

A slamdunk: American-born NBA star Jeremy Lin has proven popular in China

“We don’t want to sit around in our hotel room ordering American room service,” Erik Spoelstra, coach of the Miami Heat basketball team, told media last week. “We want to try some Chinese culture.”

What that might entail intrigues WiC: a group of six foot eight men practicing calligraphy, perhaps? Anyway, it’s a major step forward from an earlier era when Washington Bullets forward Elvin Hayes refused to even leave the team bus during a visit to the Great Wall.

Hayes dismissed the ancient landmark with the memorable line: “I’ve seen a big wall before.”

In fact, Spoelstra was evidently intent on displaying a good deal more cultural sensitivity during his team’s visit to China. In large part that’s because the NBA knows it must do a better job of engaging with its Chinese fans.

In recent years the basketball league has been guaranteed a lot of attention in China, primarily thanks to Yao Ming, the Shanghainese basketball sensation who played for the Houston Rockets. However, with Yao’s retirement last year it lost a key ambassador in China. Keeping Chinese fans interested looks like being a challenge too. A Xinhua survey two years ago suggested that only 15% of NBA fans in China fall into the ‘diehard’ category – defined as supporting a specific team and buying its merchandise. A further 35% were classified as watching only the big games, with no team loyalty. Most worrying of all, the remaining 50% declared themselves as Yao fans and only watched games in which he played.

To make matters worse, another top Chinese star Yi Jianlian recently departed the NBA too (see WiC166). Hence for the first time in 11 years, the league is without a single mainland Chinese player.

Of course, last season Jeremy Lin spiked interest across China, prompted both by his ethnicity and almost overnight success out on the court (he scored more points in his first five games than any debutant since 1976). But Lin’s a more complicated proposition for a Chinese audience than Yao – he was born in the US to Taiwanese immigrant parents.

Thus while the period of ‘Lin-sanity’ offered a welcome boost to television audiences, it was not lost on league executives that CCTV – China’s leading state broadcaster – cut the number of games it broadcast last season to two per week (from four). The decision largely reflected Yao’s retirement from the sport.

And so a new charm offensive is underway. That’s why the Miami Heat, the current NBA champions, and the Los Angeles Clippers were in China last week for high-profile pre-season games. The first match was in Beijing last Thursday, with both teams fielding their star players. The Heat won 94-80 in a hard-fought game that saw Miami’s LeBron James score 20 points, while the Clipper’s Blake Griffin netted 19. In fact, local media were impressed that both teams staged a competitive match, rather than the more typical ‘exhibition’ performance that was expected. The Information Times commented that the high number of blocks and fouls showed both sides were trying to win.

The rematch, played in Shanghai on Sunday, saw the Clippers come back to win 99-89 and tie the series. And encouragingly for the NBA, both games attracted nearly 18,000 fans, with standard tickets tripling in price online and VIP tickets changing hands for more than Rmb10,000.

It is the sixth time that the NBA has held pre-season China matches, but Peninsula Morning, a newspaper, noted it was the first “all star” fixture. The decision to bring the champions underlines how seriously the China market is being taken, it reckoned.

Xinmin Evening News reported that the Miami Heat were treating the trip with particular importance, sending an entourage of nearly 70 people, not just players and cheerleaders but senior club executives too. The Heat has recently launched a Chinese language website and said it was negotiating deals with two local companies during the visit. The Heat’s marketing director told the newspaper that the mission was “to bring Chinese brands to Miami”.

In another sign of the NBA’s intent, it was announced during the trip that the world’s first NBA Centre is to be located in Tianjin. Due for completion in 2015, this 12,000- square metre facility will include a training and fitness area, a children’s entertainment zone, and shopping and dining facilities. The goal, said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker, is to “offer the fans an excellent opportunity to enjoy and experience the NBA”.

After 20 years developing Chinese interest in the NBA, the league shows no signs of giving up…

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