The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a long history in basketball. Its predecessor – the Red Army – boasted a “combat basketball team” that split its time between military duties and playing friendly games to soften the army’s image. Later the PLA’s Bayi Rockets became the local equivalent of the LA Lakers, winning eight national championships and forming the backbone of the Chinese national team.
However, when the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) started its new season last week there was a shock for fans after the Rockets failed to show up for their opening game against the Beijing Ducks.
The CBA declared the Ducks the winner by forfeit, before announcing a day later that the Rockets had withdrawn their teams from both the men’s and women’s professional leagues.
The PLA’s influence in Chinese sport has been receding for a while, in line with a trend where more traditional state-funded backers have ceded ground to those with more commercial interests (see WiC336).
Put simply, there is more money in Chinese sport today. Take Lin Dan, the two-time Olympic badminton champion, who also came from the PLA’s ranks. Lin ‘demobilised’ himself in 2015 so that he had more freedom to take on endorsement deals.
Chris Xie, a sports journalist, told Sixth Tone that Bayi player salaries initially matched those of other teams when the CBA was created in 1995. But today soldiers’ pay is more modest compared to other professions and Bayi can’t compete with the money on offer from the leading teams in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.
“The standard salary for most Chinese players might be between Rmb1 million and Rmb2 million ($150,000 or $300,000) per year,” Xie told the news site. “But with Bayi, the players might only get Rmb100,000 or Rmb200,000.”
The Rockets’ PLA affiliation also meant that it was unable to recruit foreign players, putting it at a disadvantage to its more commercialised rivals. In August last year former NBA player Lance Stephenson became the highest-paid basketballer in CBA history after signing a $4 million single-year contract with the Liaoning Flying Leopards. Bayi had no chance of competing anywhere close to that level of pay, and struggled to even recruit local talent. In the prior season, the Rockets came last with a dismal 6-40 losing record.
The military is in retreat in other sports as well. The PLA Daily – the armed forces main newspaper – reported this week that the military will be disbanding 29 of its teams.
Caixin Weekly has reported that onlookers generally support the move because a lot of the Bayi teams weren’t made up of “real soldiers” but sporting recruits selected from all over the country.
“Very good — the fewer soldiers like volleyball majors and basketball colonels, the better. People who have gained the rank of major general through dance and singing should also be cleaned up quickly,” one of the more popular comments to the Caixin article responded.
The decision comes amid a continuing restructuring of the PLA demanded by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This started with a pledge in 2015 to cut the number of military personnel by 300,000 (from two million active troops) and boost the army’s combat readiness. Along the same lines, the PLA Daily claimed that the latest sports reform would “improve the PLA’s professionalism and combat skills”.
Still, almost everyone involved in Chinese basketball is asking why the PLA didn’t give more notice of its decision in the off-season, allowing the male and female leagues more time to come up with replacements.
After all, disbanding the longstanding franchise (Bayi denotes ‘August 1st’, aka the day on which the PLA was founded in 1927) cannot have been a decision that was taken hastily. Meanwhile the basketball leagues are trying to figure out how to replace Bayi at such short notice. The CBA features 20 teams, although commentators say Bayi’s dropping out will have a more material impact on the women’s league (the WCBA) where the team was still a major contender – unlike in the men’s game.
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