Inside China's Hoop Dreams
BEIJING – There are more than 300 million people who play basketball in China; retired Houston Rockets player Yao Ming is still one of the biggest celebs in the country; and there are statues of U.S. ballers in public parks.
Hollywood executives keen to build up relations in China could learn how from the National Basketball Association, which has spent over 30 years building its brand in China, turning hoop dreams into reality.
"I am actually in China right now with Nike and the passion and love for basketball is just incredible," Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant tells The Hollywood Reporter. "While this is my eighth consecutive tour of China, I can’t even imagine how intense it will be when the Lakers play for the first time in Beijing and Shanghai against the Warriors this October for NBA Global Games."
Bryant is not alone in spreading the NBA love in China.
The organization has teamed up with Shanghai Film Group to produce Amazing, a 3D sci-fi basketball movie, with popular Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming and some big names from the basketball world, including Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. The movie is expected to open in China in mid-October.
"Overall, there is an undeniable appetite for sports and entertainment, and we are constantly looking for new ways to reach our fans," says NBA China CEO David Shoemaker.
It hasn't hurt that the NBA has a long-term partnership with the state broadcaster CCTV, which means Chinese fans have been able to watch the NBA regularly since 1987.
"We have worked closely with the Chinese Basketball Association and all of our partners to create unique programs to bring fans closer to the game," adds Shoemaker.
Basketball has been popular since missionaries first shot hoops here in the 19th century -- but the game's ascendance to the top rankings really took off when the 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming joined the Rockets in 2002. Yao is retired now, but his legacy is a potent one.
"We have conducted hundreds of grassroots events across China that have let fans experience the sights and sounds of the NBA and given them a chance to interact with NBA players and legends," says Shoemaker.
Overall, NBA Global Games will feature 12 NBA teams playing 10 regular-season and preseason games in 10 cities in seven countries -- marking the most NBA teams to play internationally in a single season in league history.
Digital and social media have become a huge growth area for the NBA in China and allows the organization to reach fans outside of the Tier-1 and 2 cities -- those outside Beijing and Shanghai -- through live games, digital and mobile content and even merchandise through its partnership with China's Amazon-like Tmall.com.
"We are the overall number one brand on social media in China with more than 60 million followers on (social media sites) Sina and Tencent," says Shoemaker.
The NBA is also building an NBA Center on the outskirts of Beijing, a $1.5 billion, 2,300-acre sports and entertainment superstructure.
As with the film and entertainment sectors, the potential for the NBA's growth in China is still enormous, and the numbers tell the tale: During the Chinese New Year the NBA hosted a celebration event that reached a total of 107 million fans on television and digital media.