Why Is The NBA So Popular In China?

Being the most renowned basketball league in the world, the NBA has fans throughout the world, especially in China.

But have you ever wondered why the NBA is so popular in China?

China and the National Basketball Association of America aren’t exactly words we would expect to see together; to the wider public (who won’t know much about China itself) they must be continents (pun intended) apart.

Surprisingly, though, they go hand in hand and have been, for almost 40 years now. What exactly is the reason for this closeness?

The answer is but a few phenomena: YMCA, CPC actually adopting the sport, Yao Ming, Linsanity, the CBA becoming increasingly popular amongst NBA players, and social media deals!

Is Basketball- quintessentially American?

To many of us, basketball has always seemed like an unforgivable, quintessentially American sport. And for good reasons, at that. They’ve made dunking a ball into a basket a worldwide phenomenon, and more importantly: interesting?!

So, yes. American.

Shocker, though: The majority of the Chinese beg to differ, with approximately 300 million people in the country playing the game.

The question is: how did this come to be?

The introduction of basketball to China:

The answer to the above question becomes a little more clear when find out that Basketball came to Tianjin, China just four years (1895) after its invention in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891- by American missionaries from the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association).

The sport grew quickly due to it requiring relatively less resources (how hard is installing a basket?) to play and it became an event in the 1910 and 1914 National Games too.

The hub for it’s growth, however, were mainly universities and colleges, with the country’s first national team -comprising of only college students- bringing home a silver medal in the Far Eastern Championship Games basketball tournament as early as 1913. By 1935, basketball was the seen (as per popular vote) by the Chinese citizens as one of the two national sports (the other being ping-pong).

Basketball popularity and play never even died down during the Chinese civil war in the 1930s, with the soldiers incorporating the sports into their pastime.

Basketball under the CPC:

Considering that in 1949, when the Communist Party came to power, basketball was still considered a predominantly Western sport- it would’ve been a given that they would have some reservations toward it.

Yet, (you guessed it!) bewilderingly, they didn’t. In fact, it was one of the only “Western” things that the party didn’t openly disapprove of, which may be because the sport’s ideals: of teamwork, hard work, and effort went hand in hand with their own ideals.

Therein, the sport started enjoying political support and the Party themselves started encouraging it e.g by founding the country’s first domestic teams called Bayi Basketball Team (named after the founding of the army on August 1st (bā yī or “eight one”)), which is still featured in the nation’s top basketball league, the CBA.

The army itself encourages regular tournaments for soldiers to be held.

China’s affinity towards basketball only grew and cemented itself after that, and following the ping-pong diplomacy in 1971 (when for the first time in two decades Americans from the US Table Tennis Tennis were invited into Communist China), it became another bridge between China re-association with the world.

The NBA enters China:

The NBA officially got introduced to China, after Deng Xiaoping’s reopening of the country to the world in 1978, which allowed foreign businesses to operate in the country.

Come 1984, and China’s national basketball team had won its country, its first Olympic medal, with the help of Zheng Haixia.

A deal was brokered in 1987 between the NBA and the Chinese state-run television network, CCTV to air recorded games- on the advice and direction of the then commissioner of the league, David Stern.

A few years later, this transformed into a live broadcasting one, which was an impressive feat to pull off by an American company at the time.

The NBA also opened their first office in Hong Kong, in 1992.

The creation of the CBA:

By 1994, all the NBA finals were shown live in China. And by 1995, a reorganization of China’s national basketball team was done to create the CBA or Chinese Basketball Association, the Chinese equivalent of the NBA- whose players seemed to have a chance to even play in it’s brother league.

This was first done when the notorious Olympic winner from 1984, Zheng Haixia was drafted by the WNBA (the NBA league for women). The NBA, too, took in their footsteps, with the Dallas Mavericks recruiting Wang Zhizhi (center for the Bayi Rockets).

Considering their time in the NBA was short-lived, Zheng and Wang paved the road for others, particularly one other player, to follow.

The marvel that was Yao Ming:

However, basketball in China had always been played in a uniquely Chinese style, with the country assimilating the game to suit their physical needs and talents.

These “markers” of Chinese basketball were relatively obscured to the rest of the world until a giant, by the name of Yao Ming, came along.

Standing at 7 foot 6, Yao had played both for the CBA and Shangai Sharks before being recruited by the NBA, and in 2004, for the Houston Rockets. This generated a complete frenzy and craze surrounding him and his team across his home country, during the years to follow.

Even in 2003, before this, Yao’s first battle on court with Shaquille O’ Neal was watched by over 200 million Chinese fans. His signing with the Rockets, however, made him the face of Chinese sports worldwide. His popularity ensured that the world saw China’s potential in basketball. Even in his home country, Yao managed to get tons of brand deals and endorsements, becoming the face of countless billboards and adverts.

Such was his craze that even his fellow team members, unknown by the wider public now, are still popular in China.

Even though his career was short-lived, it was still very much sensational- with eight All-Star Selections, winning 50 plus games four times and reaching the playoffs 5 times, including the Westwrn Conference Semifinals once. He was a hallmark of Chinese sports and shortly after his rise to popularity NBA started hosting preseason games in Chinese cities in 2004.

The influence Yao had:

Not only did Yao allow for basketball to take hold at grassroots in China, the influence he had created a butterfly effect: also allowing for the NBA to become partners with a lot tech companies in the country, with NBA stores and experience concept stores springing up all over the country in recent times.

“Walking around China with Yao Ming is like walking through New York with The Beatles,” former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said in Yao’s jersey retirement video.

There are NBA sponsored organizations built basketball courts dotting big and small parts of the country and it is considered a national past time of the whole country.

I can bet you’ll see someone playing basketball whenever or whatever time of the day you stroll through China and it’s streets.

“Basketball is a part of the Chinese culture,” said Meng Wang, an analyst and commentator for Tencent, which has grown into China’s largest and most most used Internet service portal. “It is a game that has long been enjoyed by the population…” (Source: www.nba.com)

NBA in China in modern times:

Unfortunately, after Yao, not many Chinese players have made it into the NBA except Jeremey Lin. The 32-year-old was the first American of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.

He was also the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, doing so with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

He is best known for the Linsanity craze, with the word defined by Wiktionary as “enthusiasm and excitement about the sudden rise of Jeremy Lin (then of the NBA’s New York Knicks) to basketball stardom in 2012.”

NBA efforts in China:

Yet basketball and the NBA has still had a solid and regrowing fanbase in China, due to the NBA’s consistent efforts.

It now has dealt with numerous T.V and media outlets, including a three-decade partnership with CCTV.

NBA China was launched in 2008 and stands at being worth more than 4 billion dollars now. The league signed a deal with Weibo (a Chinese blogging platform), where it airs its games live, and Tencent, where the company streams its games and markets the NBA to consumers through self-owned social media platforms like QQ and WeChat, where game highlights, player interviews, photos, and stats can be accessed.

NBA and Tencent have even announced a five-year extension of their partnership through the 2024-25 season, as the tech giant has estimated that there are 500 million Chinese fans consuming NBA content- as reported by ESPN.

“If there’s a second center of the basketball universe, it’s China.” CEO of the 76ers, Scott O’ Neil told CNBC.

Many NBA teams have worn Chinese character stitched jerseys in the Chinese New Year and even adopted Chinese team names.

Efforts bearing fruit:

According to official figures, during the 2017-18 season, more than 600 million people in China watched NBA content.

Moreover, as of 2018, the league became the most followed sports league on Chinese social media with more than 150 million followers, which number further increased a further 47 million during the 2018-19 seasons (as shown in team’s digital performance’s annual report).

Since 2014, around 26 games have been played in Beijing, Shangai, Shenzhen, and Taipei (capital of Taiwan), by 17 different teams.

The NBA now makes annual trips to the country every summer for promotional events and exhibition games, with a player (Stephen Marbury) even choosing to settle in China after retirement.

Home stars:

Nevertheless, the basketball fever in China is not restricted to the NBA, with the country having numerous local stars in the CBA. They compete in streetball tournaments and numerous reality TV shows. The CBA has grown to include 20 men’s teams all throughout the country.

China even hosted the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

The increasing importance of the CBA:

It has recently become a trend for many NBA veterans or players that are not chosen by the big league, opting to travel to China and play for the CBA. This is mostly due to the salaries and living conditions drastically improving in the country, including the early return to the US.

Another advantage of playing in the CBA for American players is the number of games per week: three, as opposed to FIBA’s one, which matches up more with the NBA schedule, making the players more physically and mentally prepped for their US transition.

“The CBA bas become the NBA’s backyard.” Li Zhengning, an editor from China’s “People Daily” newspaper wrote.

Prominent basketball arenas:

There are also multiple basketball arenas in China, the most prominent being:

Wukesong Arena, which is also known as the Cadillac Center. It was built in Beijing originally for the 2008 Summer Olympics basketball finals.

Second is the Mercedes-Benz Arena, formerly known as Shangai World Expo Center. This is an indoor arena, in Pudong, Shangai.

Rifts between China and the NBA:

Despite there being some grievances and conflict between the NBA and China (throwback to Daryl Morey’s (the president of Philadelphia 76ers) tweet about standing with Hong Kong and democracy:

“Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” which, for obvious reasons sparked outrage all across China, with many threats and almost deal cancellations), there have been steps taken to reconcile e.g The day after Kobe Bryant died, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, posted a statement on Twitter: “Saddened by the tragic loss of #KobeBryant. An inspiration for many and a legend of his generation, he will always be remembered for his contribution to the world of sport and to #ChinaUS people-to-people exchanges.”

Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said the league has “no plans to stop distributing our games in China.”

“We continue to believe in the unique power of sports to bring people together across cultures,” Bass said.

Final thoughts:

Whatever the exact reason may be, basketball is now the most popular sport among Chinese youth and the NBA is the country’s most popular sports league and the fanaticism isn’t dying down anytime soon.