China As A Sports Market

First it was pagers, then cell phones, then Internet use and then cars. In each case, China has emerged as the largest market in the world for these products soon after they were introduced into the country. Can the same thing happen in sports?

When I came to China over 15 years ago, I would never have thought so. Other than the unused, poorly maintained basketball courts that I saw at most factories I visited, there was not much evidence of Chinese interest in sports, at least that I could see.

Perhaps it was Yao Ming’s great success with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, or the 51 gold medals won by Chinese athletes at the Beijing Olympics, or Michael Phelps’s individual heroics and the “US NBA Dream Team” that awakened the sleeping sports dragon in the country. Whatever it was, China is rapidly becoming one of the largest sports markets in the world.

NBA star LeBron James and his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced this week that they have agreed to allow an investment group from China to take up to a 15 percent stake in the team. The motivation for the sale is to provide marketing opportunities for the Cavs—and for LeBron James, who becomes a free agent next summer and might otherwise leave to join a team in a larger market such as Los Angeles or New York. LeBron, aka King James, said that he wants to become the first billionaire athlete. It’s thought that his brand overseas would be enhanced by playing for a team with Chinese business partners.

China has indeed developed into quite a market for basketball. 300 million Chinese now participate in basketball in some way. 70 percent of males between 15 and 24 are NBA fans, and in urban areas, the NBA has 89 percent awareness among this group.

During the 2007/8 season, 51 NBA-licensed networks in Greater China reached more than 1.4 billion viewers, 59 percent higher than the previous year. When the Houston Rockets and Yao Ming faced off on December 22 against the New Jersey Nets and their Chinese star, Yi Jianlian, 106 million viewers in China tuned in. By way of comparison, this year’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, which was the most-watched Super Bowl ever and the second-most-watched program in U.S. television history, attracted 98.7 million viewers, slightly less than the matchup between Yao and Yi.

Separately, IMG Worldwide Inc., the sports marketing giant, announced this week that it had received the necessary clearances to begin a 20-year-sporting-event partnership with China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state broadcaster. With 740 million daily viewers, CCTV has the biggest daily audience in the world. The partnership between IMG and CCTV will target sports covering various demographics, including polo and sailing in the luxury category, golf and tennis for the white-collar category, and American football for younger fans.

Robert Kuhn, one of IMG’s partners, summed it up best when he said: “We see that the sports industry in China will become gigantic—the largest in the world.”

One Response to “China As A Sports Market”

  1. Jack, I’m glad you posted this…I’d also been blogging about the Cavs deal recently and thinking about what it all potentially means for the world sporting scene — perhaps the creation of a rival Chinese “National Basketball Association” with a true “World Series/Championship” to settle the nagging question about who is the premier hoops-shooting nation of all-time?

    The instant I’d been through the news reports, I furrowed around a bit on Amazon and noticed this a propos title:

    which I’d like to get my hands on soon…a (revisionist?) retrospective of Chinese involvement in sports dating back to the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1895. The reviews have been interesting…

    In any event, what shocks me, incidentally, is how there are so few good books about the Beijing Olympics — can it be that it’s still too recent of an event to have anything of scholarly value written? If you know of any titles, I’d be grateful for those too.

    From Prague,