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NBA scores a slam dunk in China

Scott Tong Oct 17, 2007

NBA scores a slam dunk in China

Scott Tong Oct 17, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: This next story is datelined Shanghai, China last night: The NBA’s Orlando Magic beat Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 90-86.

It was only a preseason game, so it doesn’t count for much — except maybe for this: The NBA’s officially gone global. The league’s wholly-owned Chinese subsidiary, NBA China, opened for business Monday.

It’s the league’s biggest market outside the United States, and don’t think sneaker companies and sports marketers haven’t noticed. Marketplace’s Scott Tong has more.

Scott Tong: On the courts at Shanghai’s Fudan University, the trash talk sounds a bit friendlier than in America. Otherwise, the scene’s familiar: young people emulating NBA stars.

This 18-year-old just dropped $150 U.S. for his purple Nikes:

Basketball player: I like Kobe. I just like Kobe Bryant — that’s why I wear them. They’re not the most comfortable. Some of friends pay even more, like $225 for the Tracy McGrady shoes.

The NBA and its corporate sponsors drool over guys like this. The league’s China revenues grew 50 percent last year, thanks mostly to licensing deals. This week, the NBA is going full bore to promote the China Games — it flew in former San Antonio Spurs superstar George Gervin to run a basketball clinic underwritten by Adidas.

George Gervin: [Speaking at the clinic] I shot the ball all the time… [waits for translation] And where I shot the ball made a difference.

Eighty-three percent of Chinese men between 16 and 61 say they like hoops. They watch NBA games live on TV, and they recognize the stars — even old-timers like Darryl Dawkins, aka Chocolate Thunder.

Darryl Dawkins: I’ve taken a picture with about a hundred little old ladies. And I don’t know if they knew me, or I was just the biggest thing they’ve ever seen. But they seem to know me — they say: “Hey, there’s Chocolate Thunder!”

To cash in on basketball fever here, Spalding sponsored an NBA traveling exhibit across China, and Motorola ran a national two-on-two street tournament. But doing business in China is its own game. For instance, the youth tend not to, you know, Just Do It.

Sam Flemming: In China, traditionally sport is something you watch.

Market researcher Sam Flemming.

Flemming: Sport is not something you do for fun, necessarily. It’s seen as a distraction.

From studying… So the challenge for, say, shoe companies is to promote exercise and the notion of sports as entertainment. Right now, professional sports leagues exist not to sell tickets or merchandise — they’re about breeding Olympic champions, says sports marketing veteran Tor Petersen.

Tor Petersen: The dismantling of an Eastern European sports model is a big step for China.

But it’s hard to ignore the hundreds of millions of potential customers, like Edward Sheng. In college, he used to cut class to watch Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets.

Edward Sheng: If it is a Houston game, and I have a Marxist theory course, I drop it.

Tong: You skip class?

Sheng: Yes.

Sheng’s Friend: That’s beyond boring.

So much for Marxist theory — bring on the capitalist profiteers from the sports world.

In Shanghai I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Staff researcher Linda Lin contributed to this report.

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