NBA's Chinese Slam Dunk
Every year there is a draft that no one dodges. In fact there are more aspirants than there is space on the list.
The NBA draft is the annual event by which the league teams recruit collegiate and, until three years ago, high-school players. It was in 2001 for the first time that a foreigner with no experience of playing in the US was picked for the draft. Within a year, Pau Gasol went from the Spanish league's Most Valuable Player to the NBA's Rookie of the Year. The next year Yao Ming topped the draft list and as China and the NBA watched with bated breath, he stunned them with a grand score of one point in one game.
Of course Yao has since more than redeemed himself and more importantly for the NBA, this China import has scored them a slam dunk into the enormous Chinese market.
As the Olympic match-up proved, Chinese players are still a class below their American counterparts but simple arithmetic shows just why China is such an allure for the NBA. Telecast on free-to-air state television in China, NBA games reach an estimated 314 million households – practically as many people as there are back home in the US. And basketball is not even the most popular sport in China. (Football is.)
With a growing middle class, stronger buying power, a captive market (43% of all Chinese men under 40 say they are fans), and a perfect poster boy in the form of Yao, the NBA is staking its claim on the world's biggest consumer base. Twenty years after the first league game was broadcast on Chinese televisions, NBA China was set up last September to consolidate all businesses in a market which saw it rake in more than US$50 million the previous year.
To spearhead this ambitious project, they poached the CEO of Microsoft China Timothy Chen – a Bulls fan from his MBA days at the University of Chicago – who has had much experience dealing with the intricacies of Chinese bureaucracy. And as the Olympics opened, the Lakers announced a two-year deal with Chinese point guard, Sun Yue, the latest signing after Yi Jianlian last year for the New Jersey Nets.
More Chinese players = greater Chinese interest in the NBA.
Already, the NBA says all its games last year had a combined viewership of 1 billion, and this July, more than 1,000 people lined up for the grand opening of the NBA store in Beijing. Sales for the first month there and at a second store exceeded projections by 70%.
Now with a windfall in the form of the Beijing Olympics where the US basketball team astounded the Chinese fans with their obliteration of every team that came their way, including the home team and Spain, the world champions, with their show-stopping dunks and perfect cross-court passes, the cult of the NBA can only soar from here.
First, they will be needing more of those Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers jersey. It's already a top seller for two years running in China, outselling even Yao, the national hero's.
On a Sidenote...
Ping-pong diplomacy, slam-dunk politics
As popular as the NBA is in China, it is still subject to the control of the state government, which owns CCTV and the channels that broadcast the games. This May, they decided to there would be no more NBA games for 10 days. The official explanation was the games were "too entertaining" for the mourning period after the Sichuan earthquake. (Paradoxically, the French Open remained on-air.) Online, some suggested it had to do with the letter initiated by Lakers' Ira Newble. Co-signed by several other players, it petitioned China to act against the Sudanese government it has been backing, citing its genocidal activities in Darfur. If true, it would not be the first time the NBA fell victim to politics. In 1999, NBA games went off the air after American planes accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Can Asians jump?
Apparently yes, as Yao Ming and gang have proven. To be close to Yao's 2.29m may be a tall order genetically, but a height of 2.11m like Yi Jianlian's or even 2.06m like Sun Yue's can be reached. To get there though, a nine-year-old would have to be almost as tall as most full-grown Asian men at 1.7m. That is how tall Yao was.