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In 1979, to mark the establishment of official US-China relations, the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) flew to China for two friendship games. Flash forward past Michael Jordan, Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin to last month, when, to mark Chinese New Year, the Wizards took on the Golden State Warriors, who wore jerseys emblazoned with Chinese characters. The game aired live in China, playing for millions of families the morning of Feb. 25 on CCTV. Other games in the series also played on Tencent and many other channels, traditional and online. What once was a cultural export is now inexorably fused with the enthusiastic fan base in China. To trot out the old cliché: The NBA has become basketball with Chinese characteristics.

The NBA hardly stands as the lone example of China’s increasing consumer clout. Other US sports brands eagerly market themselves to China in the hopes of capturing the attentions of a nation that has risen from poverty to middle-class consumerism in the span of 30 years. American sports famously root for the little guy, and now they’ve landed their sights on the ultimate underdog success story of the 21st century. Right now, the NBA has the lead. But the new consumer market is still young; it’s too early to call the game.

“If you want to be the number one sport in the world,” said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker, “you can’t do that without being number one in China.”

The challenges facing these sports brands are like those of many in the entertainment sector – market access, government relations, intellectual property rights. None of these companies has a home-court advantage, but the NBA does have a few more years and fans on the other sports brands, and it’s thus now focused on fostering local players and participation rather than fans. Major League Baseball and the National Football League are currently working on building up their own followings through interactive events and children’s leagues. Winter sports, such as snowboarding, are tapping into lifestyle branding and hoping for a successful Olympic bid to gain mainstream appeal. The consumer market in China is wide open – it could be anyone’s game.

A slam dunk, 20 years in the making

At the start of 2015, the NBA inked a five-year deal with Tencent, which operates social networking service WeChat, to carry games, highlights and other league content on its digital platforms, a deal that’s worth $500 million. The partnership stands as the NBA’s largest ever international digital deal. Chinese companies take the NBA seriously as a brand with a strong following.

Shoemaker, who previously worked for the Women’s Tennis Association in China, emphasized that the 2011 retirement of Yao Ming, didn’t signify any decline in the sport’s popularity. Over the 2014-2015 season, NBA games attracted 600 million Chinese viewers.

“I think of that as a stunning statistic for us, in part because of the sheer volume – twice the population of the US – but also because it’s approaching one out of two people in the entire country tuning in,” Shoemaker said. “We’re pretty proud of that.”

Many trace the NBA’s current success in China back to a shrewd 1987 TV deal with the government.

 NFL China builds up its fan base by supporting local leagues.

“It’s clear that their success had a lot to do with getting on CCTV early on,” said Jeffrey Towson, professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management and author of The One Hour China Book. “It was critical. You can’t go to CCTV today and capture that many eyeballs. CCTV still has lots of viewers, but they don’t dominate like they used to.”

Towson compares CCTV in the 1980s and 1990s to American TV in the 1960s, when viewers were limited to three channels, generating a more concentrated viewership.

In the ’90s, as NBA star player Michael Jordan wowed fans around the world, China watched, too. Fans in China were passionate and could rattle off player stats.

This primed the market for the dramatic entrance of Yao Ming in 2002. Keeping with the 1960s television analogy, Towson calls Yao’s entrance into the NBA akin to the Beatles’ explosive appearance on the American TV show Ed Sullivan, each igniting a “tremendous consumer phenomenon.”

While indeed a triumph of media, marketing and a little luck, Yao was also the result of government involvement – the airing of American basketball when few other foreign products were allowed on TV, and of course the state league that trained Yao. During the Olympics, Yao proudly played for Team China. Yao, now retired, teamed up with NBA China last year to launch the NBA Yao Club, an after-school training program for boys and girls in Beijing and Shanghai.

Our view is you need to get that fan base first, Our view is you need to get that fan base first, Our view is you need to get that fan base first.

Leon Xie, Managing Director of Major League Baseball’s Beijing office, says a star athlete from the local market has to come at just the right time to be effective. For MLB, he sees it as too soon to fully capitalize on this sort of phenomenon. “You need a good enough fan base ready before that happens,” Xie said.

Once it happened for the NBA, the league created a one-of-a-kind, US-China media structure. At a time when few had inroads into China, the NBA had a devoted following. US companies eager to get a little face time with the new consumers of a China on the rise went for the NBA. Chinese companies, too, took advantage of this media bridge.

“All these major multinationals found a way to reach China’s consumers, so suddenly everyone’s invested in the NBA becoming successful in China,” Towson said.

In 2008, the league established NBA China, attracting investment from companies such as Disney/ESPN and Bank of China. These companies continue to serve as investors and partners as the business has grown to 130 employees across four offices: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei.

Basketball’s success in China has also spilled over to other leagues. Women’s professional basketball has players in both the US and China leagues simultaneously due to their opposite schedules. And the Pac-12 Conference, a college sports league on the US West Coast, runs exhibition basketball games in China and has a live stream deal through LeTV.com, said Carrie Xu, Senior Manager of International for the Pac-12 Conference.

The next phase for the NBA will once again hinge on a strategic arrangement with the Chinese government. This time, it’s with the Ministry of Education. In a plan born at a Chicago Bulls game, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Vice Premier Madame Liu Yandong, China’s highest-ranking education leader, decided to work together to integrate basketball into the curriculum of China’s middle and elementary schools. In this agreement, the NBA secures access to a new generation of enthusiastic players, and the Ministry of Education finds a partner for its integration of sports and culture into the test-centric system. The project will impact 3 million students by 2017. Shoemaker estimates he’ll have to increase his team by 10 percent to support this new effort.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get the parents of children, and in many cases one child, to spend a little less time focusing on their studies and a little more time on sport,” Shoemaker said. “But it doesn’t hurt that this new focus on sports and culture is supported by pronouncements from the central government at the highest level.”

Shoemaker said Jeremy Lin, the Chinese-American NBA player who inspired the “Linsanity” craze in 2012, serves as the perfect role model for this new approach to education. By all measures, the Harvard-educated NBA star is a high achiever, and he’s kept sports a part of his life throughout.

“That sends an incredibly strong message to Chinese and Chinese-American families that you can do both and excel at both,” Shoemaker said.

‘Building that emotional and cultural connection’

MLB also hopes to expand its brand in China through youth programs. Currently, MLB provides training for physical education teachers in 120 primary schools across five cities. Additionally, MLB set up development centers in Wuxi, Changzhou and Nanjing to reach out to all four corners of China and recruit star athletes. The hunt for baseball’s Yao Ming is on.

Xie said the league’s strategy in China is to develop fans and improve the level of play on the national and provincial levels. It’s still too early for them to have big numbers to flaunt, Xie said. Instead, he looks for positive signs, such as China’s decision to keep baseball in the national games system and the recent increase in their retail stores from 120 to 300.

He says the hardest part of entering the China market is the complexity of the product.

“Baseball is a complicated game,” Xie said. “Fans in China are very loyal, but we need to convert general sports fans into baseball fans, build that emotional and cultural connection, which is very difficult.”

For US sports coming to China, there can be a conundrum from the very onset: build an audience or increase media exposure first?

“Our view is you need to get that fan base first, but it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Ken Chen, Director of global strategy consulting firm L.E.K.’s Shanghai office. Sports franchises are more than willing to invest, he said, even if it means losing money at live events for the sake of future success. “Even the NBA had to invest starting in the 1980s,” he added.

Both MLB and NFL are pouring resources into creating memorable, interactive sports events.

Besides its glittering annual Super Bowl viewing parties, the NFL hosts events across China called Home Field. Usually attended by families, Home Field lets visitors watch a flag football game and test their own running speed, strength or kicking, and then see how well they rank against friends or other attendees.

“Once people start to learn about it, then our work is easier, because the product speaks for itself,” said Richard Young, Managing Director at NFL China.

Young, a Chicago Bears fan, has “worked in every sport,” a point that’s hard to argue with a man whose work experience includes cricket in India, bowling in Asia, Xinhua Sports and ESPN.

Young sees football’s status as an Olympics outsider as his company’s biggest detriment in China. What keeps him motivated is that the longer he’s in China, the more he sees examples of great products defying cultural divides. He points to the rise of Starbucks in a tea-drinking nation, or the success of Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in the US.

“These cultural divides are nowhere near as divisive as people think when it comes to good products,” he said. “Here, people are using American football to say it defines them, almost like wine drinkers (in the US) in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m drinking wine. It’s the same thing … a high-quality product they find enjoyable.”

Another feather in Young’s cap is the fact that the fans the NFL is attracting are the higher-end consumers that advertisers covet. As NFL’s fan base has grown from 1 million in 2010 to about 14 million in 2014, the league has consistently attracted upper income, educated, urban consumers.

While Young and his small team aren’t equipped to overturn the Olympic Committee’s dismissal of their sport, closer to home, Young still finds restrictions on market access. Games appear on 20 local stations, but CCTV doesn’t currently air the NFL.

“It has more to do with political and social considerations than the level of popularity,” Young said. “There is no China team in the NFL. Many times, people see sport through national pride.”

Chen from L.E.K. said traditional TV is still the best way to get wider exposure in the China market. Emergent online channels won’t get the same number of viewers, he said, but licensing deals like the NBA with Tencent have helped reduce video pirating. All the sports and entertainment companies interviewed for this story acknowledged that these legitimate channels have reduced intellectual property rights issues significantly. That’s a trend echoed across sectors in the 2015 AmCham China Business Climate Survey.

Another hopeful indicator for Young is the fact that the NFL’s presence in London, started in the 1980s, is beginning to pay off, with tickets at Wembley Stadium selling out nine months before the match.

“We’re not as big as badminton or table tennis, but that’s not how businesses are rated,” he said. “We offer more value to sponsors.”

Winter sports seizing Olympic fever

Young isn’t exaggerating when he mentions again and again the impact of being an Olympic sport. This fact isn’t lost on winter sports brands in China right now, who see Beijing’s 2022 Winter Games bid within sight. This month, the Olympic Committee will visit candidate cities – now down to Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan – and will announce the final decision July 31. Winning this bid would likely inject winter sports with a consumer appeal not yet seen in China.

“Olympic fever has lots of potential,” said Israel Maynard, China Managing Director at Burton, a snowboard company headquartered in Vermont. But with the bid still up in the air, Maynard is firmly focused on increasing awareness of the sport and establishing Burton as a lifestyle brand in China and globally.

“This is a big change for the company, and Burton has been investing in this for the past two years,” Maynard said. “It’s recently starting to gain some momentum.”

Burton recently launched a Chinese site, and though the company’s not yet profitable in China, sales have grown 50 percent year on year. Burton is committed to being in China, and is establishing partnerships with resorts to provide gear and training for instructors.

Brand awareness remains the biggest challenge for Burton. Like many other big sports brands in the US, coming to China means going into startup mode. At the end of the day, though, everyone loves an underdog story.  

Kemp Collings contributed research and interviews to this story.