The NBA in China
When someone learns that I have lived in China since 1994, one of the first things they ask is what I miss most. It’s an easy question to answer: holidays and sports.
I have always found it very difficult to go to the office on July 4 in Beijing, knowing that everyone back home is enjoying a four-day weekend and will be spending their day firing up the grill and having a few cold ones. Not that I’m a sports junkie, but with the time difference and focus here on soccer, it’s tough to keep up with what’s going on in American sports. (By the way, are the Yankees still in the playoffs?)
That’s why I was especially happy when a friend of mine from Indianapolis e-mailed last week and invited Carleen and me to watch the Indiana Pacers play the Denver Nuggets in Beijing. My friend and his wife, along with one hundred or so avid supporters of the Pacers (and presumably an equal number from the Nuggets), had been invited by the Pacers and the National Basketball Association (NBA) to accompany the team on their Asia tour, which included exhibition games in Taipei and Beijing. We went as their guests and became Hoosiers for the day.
So, on Sunday morning, when we would normally just be finishing our coffee, we fought the Beijing traffic to travel across town to Wukesong Arena, where the Olympic basketball games were played, to meet our friends and root for the Pacers. It took us nearly an hour and a half. Traffic in Beijing was especially heavy over the weekend as thousands of tourists lined up to see the October 1 parade floats on display in Tiananmen Square.
It was well worth it, though. We had third row seats and the entertainment was great. No matter who’s playing, it’s always fun to watch a professional sports team live, and the event sponsors did a great job filling up the timeout and halftime breaks with a variety of entertainment. We saw break dancers, a dance competition which an elderly Chinese NBA fan won, acrobatic basketball stunts, and of course, good old wholesome (and pretty) American cheerleaders.
Unfortunately, the Pacers lost the game, splitting the two-game Asia series with the Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony scored 45 points to lead the Nuggets to their 128-112 win. Playing at the same arena where he helped the United States win gold at last year’s Olympics, Anthony made 14 of 19 field goals and 16 of 17 free throws and put away the Pacers with a 17-point third quarter.
When I was visiting 100 components factories in 40 cities throughout China during the first nine months of 1993, I was always amused to see a basketball court at nearly every one. Although I rarely saw anyone actually playing the game, their presence demonstrated that China has always had an affinity for hoops.
Basketball has come a long way in China since then. When Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian met on the court on November 9, 2007, 250 million Chinese were watching. Statistics show that there are more than 300 million basketball fans in China, surpassing the entire U.S. population. An estimated one-third of the traffic at NBA.com, the NBA’s official website, is dominated by visitors from China. More than 50,000 special commission commodity shops have been established, and over 10 million Spalding basketballs have been sold in the country. China has undoubtedly become the largest market for the NBA apart from the United States.
Basketball has such big potential in China that the NBA put its China operations into a separate subsidiary last year, and then proceeded to sell an 11 percent equity interest for $250 million to a group of five high-profile investors, valuing the China subsidiary at $2.3 billion. The five investors are Disney’s ESPN, an investment arm of the Bank of China, Legend Holdings, the Li Ka Shing Foundation, and China Merchants.
The high equity valuation for NBA China proves once again that the dream of “1 billion Chinese buying anything” is still very much alive. Despite its promise, the income earned from the China market is estimated to be less than $50 million, far less than the $3.5 billion earned domestically in the United States.
Nonetheless, hats off to the NBA for catching the China market and creating such a valuable franchise. Now if only baseball and American football can follow suit, we’ll all have more professional sports teams to cheer on in Beijing.