Successful China Tour Tightens NBA's Grip As Favored Sport With Chinese Audiences
The preseason NBA Global Games concluded on Wednesday in Beijing with a Brooklyn Nets win over the Sacramento Kings, leaving no doubt that the NBA holds the No. 1 spot in the Chinese’s hearts. In a country where sports have typically taken a back seat to academics and been reserved for young prodigies, more and more of the younger generation is looking to learn about the sports of the West -- and the NBA has given the people want they want. The MasterCard Center in Beijing sold out with 17,130 people, just behind Shanghai’s sellout crowd of 17,381 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. Tickets in Shanghai ranged from RMB 700-20,000 ($114-$3,257), and in Beijing RMB 300-10,000 ($49-$1,629). Along with a 129-117 overtime game, the event included all that makes it a full NBA experience: cheerleaders, mascots, marketing giveaways, the kiss cam and sponsor signage. And the fans were receptive. NBA Exec VP of Global Marketing & Partnerships Emilio Collins described Chinese fans as “the best in the world.” The audience of about 90% Chinese was joined by former NBA players, such as crowd favorite Shaquille O’Neal, who was invited by his long-time sponsor Harbin Beer. Uniquely different than that of a U.S. game, however, organizers posted a description of the overtime rules on the screen prior to entering OT, strategically adapting to a fan base that is still learning about the game.
NO ‘I’ IN TEAM: Loaded with int'l and local sponsors, the Global Games added three new partners this year: Germany-based Continental Tires, shampoo brand Clear by Unilever and Delta Air Lines. Courtside signage featured all partners, including Sprite, adidas, Anheuser-Busch’s Harbin Beer, SAP statistics company, dairy producer Mengniu and presenting sponsor mobile provider ZTE, which also claimed the court decal. Sponsors contributed heavily to the atmosphere of the game, with Mengniu hosting a dance-off in cow outfits during a timeout, and Sprite running a montage of retired NBAers. Adidas, also a partner of the NBA worldwide, has sponsored the Global Games since '06. An adidas spokesperson said, “In China, it’s important that a brand is strong and is able to connect to consumers continuously over time.”
THE GOOD WITH THE BAD: Although the event was a huge success overall, fans were disappointed that their several chants for “KG” fell in vain. (Kevin Garnett did not play in the Beijing game.) Meanwhile, the majority of fans watching at home were upset that the NBA did not bring more well-known teams and players. One fan said, “Maybe the NBA believes even unpopular teams can make money in China because of our large fan base,” while another asked, “This is how the NBA treats its biggest overseas market?” Despite complaints from home, the game was aired on the Mainland live on CCTV5, BesTV, Sina and Tencent, while in Hong Kong on NowTV. Additionally, the games aired live on NBA TV, reaching 215 countries.
OFF THE COURT: Monday, just before the final event of this year’s Global Games, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced a partnership between Anta Sports Products and NBA China, making the sportswear company NBA China’s official marketing and merchandising partner, replacing Peak Sports. An anonymous source quoted the deal with Anta to be worth more than RMB 2B ($32.5M) a year.
THE DIGITAL AGE: Collins said because Chinese fans are so passionate, “It’s really important for us to have multiple outlets to engage with them because they’re so thirsty for NBA content.” The NBA used WeChat, Tencent’s micro-messaging app, to directly sell tickets to the Global Games. And prior to the Games, the league even created NBA-themed emoticons, which have received 44 million downloads. Collins said, “[Social Media] is one of the most important ways our fans and partners engage with the league. … It’s an evolutionary process as this space moves so quickly.” The NBA has more than 80 million followers across China’s social media platforms, with many of the players commanding a strong presence as well. On China’s Twitter-like microblog site, Weibo, the Nets’ Kevin Garnett’s official account has more than 1.2 million followers, while Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Ryan Hollins have about 280,000 and 30,000, respectively. China and league sponsor adidas interacted with more than 200,000 fans in preparation for China’s Global Games.
CHINA, ONWARD: The Global Games were a hit outside of the Middle Kingdom. Berlin held a sellout crowd of 14,504 between the San Antonio Spurs and Alba Berlin. The game in Istanbul between the Spurs and Fenerbahçe Ülker Istanbul sold out at 12,191 tickets. And in Rio de Janeiro the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers played in front of another sellout crowd of 15,411. The NBA Global Games will continue in the regular season with the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves playing at the Mexico City Arena on Nov. 12, and the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks at The O2 in London on Jan. 15.
Kristen Heimstead is a writer in Beijing.