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How the NBA is taking over China | CNBC Sports


Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant? A lot of
Kobe fans here in China. I’ve watched the NBA
since 20 years ago. It’s eye-opening, and
kind of surreal. 1.4 billion basketball-crazed people in a
country and an economy that’s growing. Thirty million viewers for the finals
of the western conference last year, it’s unbelievable the passion that people
have for the sport and for the NBA in China. I’ve come to the world’s most populous country
where basketball has become big business. The NBA’s fanbase here
has grown massively, and the league is opening experience
stores and hosting preseason games. But I want to find out how one of America’s most loved
sports became the top sport in an unexpected country. China is the most important
international market for the NBA. This is the 26th game
to take place here, but its success in this country didn’t happen
overnight and it certainly wasn’t an accident. More than half of China’s
estimated 1.4 billion people watched NBA programming
on TV in the 2017-2018 season. China’s become the biggest international
market for NBA merchandise sales. And the NBA is the most popular
sports league on social media here, reaching more than 100 million users across its
accounts and boasting video streams in the billions. If there’s a second center of the
basketball universe, it’s China. That’s Scott, he’s the CEO
of the Philadelphia 76ers, who’s brought his team over to the
booming Chinese city, Shenzhen. It’s all part of a preseason game to promote the NBA
in China, where they’re playing the Dallas Mavericks. The world is getting flatter and
flatter, and smaller and smaller. And having teenagers of my own, you can
interchange someone from Shanghai and Philadelphia, and just rotate them,
and you wouldn’t know the difference. I mean, we listen to the same music,
we watch the same basketball, we follow the same trends,
it’s pretty incredible. The NBA started bringing teams here in
2004, in an effort to expand the game, and now 17 teams
have made it over. But this is the first time the
76ers have played in China. My favorite team is the Lakers,
but today I like the six, six. The Sixers, yeah, Philadelphia Sixers. My favorite team is
the Boston Celtics. Boston Celtics, but you’re wearing
a Dallas Mavericks jersey? Because my boyfriend loves it. Is this the boyfriend? Yes. So he made you put on
the Mavericks jersey? Yes. There are only two preseason
games taking place in China. Here, and in Shanghai. And given the sheer size of China’s population,
the demand for tickets is high. This couple came to see their first ever NBA game,
and tell me they paid more than $300 per ticket. And the knowledge of the
fans here goes deep. My favorite player is Kevin Garnett. So I love Boston because it’s the
first NBA championship of him. Many fans I talk to, don’t just watch
basketball. They play it, too. It’s good for my health. According to the NBA, more than 300
million people play basketball in China. I can play the basketball with my
friends, it’s fun man, it’s really fun. So how did basketball
become so big here? In 1979 the Washington Bullets became the
first U.S. professional sports team to visit China. The trip took place just months after President Carter
moved to establish more favorable relations with China. We’ve had a long-term view. We’ve been here since the 80s thanks to David
Stern and his persistence. It’s not an accident. In the late 80s, David Stern,
the NBA’s then-commissioner met with China’s state-run television network,
CCTV, making deals to get the games on air. Fast forward to 1994, when China’s central broadcasting
network aired every game of the NBA Finals, the first time all seven games
had been shown live in China. Eight years later, Yao Ming was
drafted by the Houston Rockets. This was a big deal for propelling
the NBA’s growth in China. Ming was born in Shanghai and
had a natural following in China. His first game he played against
Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers, garnered more than 200
million viewers in China. That same year, the NBA opened an office
in Beijing. From there, things really took off. The first NBA game in China took place in 2004.
And in 2008, NBA China was officially founded. In 2014, NBA China and the
Chinese Ministry of Education partnered to grow basketball in elementary
and middle schools across the country. Now, more than four million students are participating in
classes using the curriculum they developed together. And in 2016, Lizhang Jiang bought a
stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves making him the first Chinese
owner of an NBA team. The NBA formed deals with some of China’s biggest
tech companies, and in order to truly understand the Chinese market, you first have to understand
the importance of the mobile phone. When you look at the U.S. fan versus the
Chinese fan, what is the key difference? A Chinese fan has to watch in the morning
and the American fan watches at night. This is Derek, he’s the
CEO of NBA China. And China is known as
a mobile-first market. People can watch them on their mobile phones very
easily and that’s what they do and they interact with it. And to see the amount of traffic that’s going on,
not just in terms of the viewing of a game, but on social media, we have close to 150
million social media followers in China alone. In 2015 NBA formed a deal with Tencent,
one of China’s largest internet companies. The deal, which is reportedly
worth at least $500 million, allows Tencent to carry games,
highlights and more on its platforms. And this meant even
bigger reach for the NBA. That’s because Tencent is the owner of WeChat, which
now boasts more than one billion monthly active users. Meanwhile Weibo, a popular
Chinese microblogging platform has more than 400 million
monthly active users. The NBA’s deal with Weibo allows
it to deliver game highlights, player interviews, photos, stats,
and behind the scenes events. Just take a look at Jeremy Lin. He’s considered
China’s most popular current NBA player online. I say current because, well, Kobe Bryant
is actually the most followed NBA star. He may have retired, but
his legacy lives on here. This social media surge in popularity
of the NBA, the teams, and players is prompting some to step up the
way they market themselves in China. The connectedness is understood by Ben Simmons,
Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultzz and Dario Saric. They have Weibo accounts,
they have WeChat accounts. That’s the way to connect with fans one on
one and gives us such a competitive advantage for an organization like the Philadelphia
76ers, cause we create content and we can get wide and distribute it really
quickly and through a lot of different ways. In fact, Scott tells me he’s hiring
Mandarin-speaking Chinese staff. He hopes to have up to six new employees that
will distribute content across Chinese networks. It’s a cultural revolution, and the Chinese fans
seem to be very interested in what is new, what is interesting and what is relevant,
and NBA players are new, interesting and relevant. It’s important to note that China isn’t the only place
where the NBA is operating outside of the U.S. The NBA says it considers itself an
international organization already. 25% of NBA players are international.
It has offices in 13 markets worldwide. And more than 60% of NBA digital visitors are
actually coming from outside North America. It’s just that China is proving to be
just too lucrative to not prioritize. Everyone knows how important this place is,
and how important these people are to the game. Kemba Walker is a player for the Charlotte Hornets.
He’s come to China for a few days to promote the game. I met him in Beijing at a
new NBA Playzone store. It’s one of several that have
recently opened up in China, with the aim of bringing the NBA
experience to a younger crowd. It’s located inside a mall, and this is
the second one to open inside China. If you want to come inside, it’ll cost about
$25 for one adult and one child for a day pass. But there’s also annual
passes available as well, which gives you unlimited access to playing
basketball and a variety of other games, that are meant to completely immerse
you inside the experience of the NBA. He likes James very much. I met this NBA fan who’s brought his five-
year-old son to the event to meet Walker. If you don’t really get a chance to come out here,
you wouldn’t really understand how much they love the game of basketball and how
much respect they have for basketball. So how will it continue to grow? It’s just a very compelling product right now, between the
media that we have, a lot of the social media we have, opening things like PlayZone, we continue to
take the brand and bring it frankly to our fans. Chang says he hopes to eventually
expand Playzone stores globally. While the admission fee to come
inside certainly isn’t cheap, it’s hard to imagine the NBA will generate
sizeable profits from the Playzone stores. But that might not
be the point, either. After all, the benefit of exposing someone at a
young age and possibly acquiring a lifelong fan, could be worth way
more in the long run. How big can it get? It can be huge. There’s definitely
a lot of opportunities, it’s only getting bigger, it’s only going
to get bigger and better from here. Yeah, it will.

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