With basketball becoming a more global game, we are seeing some huge basketball cultures growing in foreign countries. With the NBA still being the premier basketball league in the world (this will most likely never change), we are also seeing some players completely resurrect their careers and reach the same or even a greater level of stardom they were able to experience in the US. One of the countries this has been the most prevalent in is China. I only imagine this trend will continue to grow and expand with the People’s Republic leading the charge. I think the NBA has been incredibly smart while building it’s relationship with China and here’s why…………
Let’s start here, China has a population of 1 billion people. If you can get roughly 15% of the world’s population (Yes, I completely understand that not every person in China is going to devote their lives to the game of basketball but just go with me here) hooked on your sport in one shot then why not heavily pursue that? It’s a brilliant strategic move. Talk about branding? That’s more publicity than a little bit. And the Chinese love the game. It’s not like there is no market for it and they are forcing this union. It has been happening organically for a while now. There is no reason why this won’t continue to grow. The NBA might eventually have a league overseas and China would be the perfect place to house it. They have exhibitions there all the time and a few players even extend their careers in Chinese leagues after their NBA days are over.
Speaking of said players, I’m sure they are happy that the Mandarin market has opened it’s doors to American basketball players. These guys aren’t only benefitting on the court but off it as well. Dwyane Wade and Klay Thompson have inked very lucrative apparel deals with Chinese companies, Li-Ning and Anta respectively. Stephon Marbury has also been able to grow his Starbury brand. In regards to Marbury, in addition to the monetary implications, he has been able to completely rebuild his image. He is extremely loved in China. They have a museum dedicated to him for God’s sake lol. Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady have also become nationally adored figures there. It’s a great thing for these guys to have an opportunity to share their stories with an entirely new nation and add a few more chapters to their careers.
Some players have definitely gained from the evolution and expansion of the NBA’s venture into the Eastern hemisphere but they are a couple of players who are responsible for it. The phenomenon we are now seeing is about 20 years in the making. Nike expanded into China in 1996 with the induction of the Shanghai Sharks into the Chinese pro league. They threw a party to introduce the new team and that is when NBA execs and personnel were introduced to Yao Ming. Once they saw the 7’3″ teenager it was on. The courtship began and six years later, Yao was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets. The NBA knew he would be special. They made several concessions and worked with the CBA to ensure that Yao would be allowed to play in the states (one of the stipulations set by the CBA was that Yao would have to be drafted with the first overall pick). The previous year, China lost one of it’s biggest basketball stars (Wang Zhizhi) to the NBA and he refused to return to play for the national team. They did not want the same thing to happen again with even a bigger star. It definitely helped that Yao could play. Without that piece, the whole thing collapses. It was a full scale onslaught. The NBA capitalized on Yao’s increasing popularity. A documentary was filmed during his rookie season called “Year of the Yao” and All Star ballots were offered in Chinese for the first time which lead to be voted as a starter in the All star game, the first rookie to do so since Grant Hill.
Yao was the catalyst but his career was cut short. He had to retire in 2011 due to multiple foot and ankle injuries. But in 2012, we were introduced to “Linsanity” and the train kept rolling. Jeremy Lin’s story was totally different from Yao. He was unheralded and came with zero fanfare. A Harvard grad with no athletic scholarships coming out of high school and sleeping on his teammates’ couch. Then out of nowhere, lightning struck. He led the Knicks to 7 straight wins, scored more points in his first five starts than any player since the NBA/ABA merger, scored 38 pts against Kobe at the Staples Center and hit a game winner against Toronto. The NBA did what any business looking to make millions of dollars would do, they jumped all over it!!!! They gave it a nice catch phrase and the media machine went to work!!! The Knicks season ended with a whimper with a paltry record when Carmelo returned from injury, Mike D’Antoni resigning and Lin having season ending surgery for a torn meniscus but by that point Linsanity had become an epidemic with no cure in sight. Since then the NBA presence in China has continued to grow exponentially and I don’t think it will plateau anytime soon.
The China/NBA relationship has been mutually beneficial. Having so much of a dominating presence in the most populous country in the world can only help. Guys are having opportunities to build their brands in a large market that is ever growing. This isn’t going to stop anytime soon. If anything, the NBA will find a way to further it’s position in China.