30 years ago, the NBA recognized that a new, untapped basketball market existed. The market did not exist in the basketball hotbeds of Los Angeles or New York, but rather, thousands of miles and an ocean away in China. Over the last 30 years, the NBA has engaged in extensive efforts to bring the sport of basketball to the Chinese people. The results have been largely successful, as today, over 300 million Chinese citizens play the sport and the NBA coming off of its most-viewed season in China.
Initially, the NBA’s relationship with the Chinese market was built upon goodwill efforts. While historians assert that the Chinese people have played basketball for over a century, the NBA recognized the culture’s love for the game as a diplomacy opportunity for its brand. In 1979, the then-Washington Bullets were the first team to travel to China to play in a goodwill game against the Chinese national team. Since then, the NBA’s China initiative has dramatically developed.
Business is indeed good for the NBA in China. The league enjoyed unprecedented viewership numbers on television, online and mobile platforms. On Weibo, the National Basketball Association's official blog in China, there are more than 31.2 million fans. On the league's official website in China, there are more than 9 million registered fans. There are over 70 million NBA followers on Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Tencent Qzone and Tencent WeChat.
And the fan numbers have made China the No 1 international market for the NBA.
"Basketball and the NBA have never been more popular in China," said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker. "As I oversee our business here, I see 300 million people playing basketball." That number is approximately the population of the US.
In 2012, NBA China's revenue was $150 million, the then NBA Commissioner David Stern told Bloomberg News. According to a Forbes report, revenue for NBA China is expected to approach $200 million with significant growth potential.
The NBA leads all major sports leagues in the US on international expansion. In China, it's an effective tool for multinational and US companies to market products and services to the world's most populous nation, and it's used by Chinese companies to market products and services in the US.
"There have been a number of important events in the development of the game in China, and perhaps none is more important than in 2002 when Yao Ming got drafted by the Houston Rockets," Shoemaker said during a phone interview from Beijing.
“Yao Ming is so important to the Chinese people. When he stepped off the playing court, there was a big vacuum affect. It was like, ‘wow, what is next?’” Terry Rhoads, who runs a Shanghai-based sports marketing agency, said in an interview. “Filling Yao’ s shoes is an impossible task. When the NBA sits around and contemplates business plans for next 10 years, they are absolutely grinding their teeth over the lack of Chinese players having the right skills.
“The biggest shortfall for China is player development. This country has amazing talent, but its potential isn’t being realized.”
But the lack of a Chinese star hasn’t really affected the NBA’s popularity in China. So in the meantime, the league will just continue pocketing Chinese fans’ money and hoarding their affection.