The NBA on Wednesday announced that two games are to be played in China this fall, in the US pro basketball league’s latest effort to mine a massive market with an insatiable taste for hoops.
The Charlotte Hornets are to go up against the Los Angeles Clippers in Shenzhen and Shanghai in October exhibition games to kick off the 2015-2016 season for Chinese National Basketball Association fans.
The NBA is expected to announce additional international games in the weeks ahead, as part of the US league’s quest to make basketball the world’s leading sport.
The NBA has invested especially heavily in China, where the game is played by an estimated 300 million people and where it has announced a venture to sell NBA apparel and footwear in more than 6,000 stores owned by Adidas and Chinese sportswear brand ANTA.
The league also has major contracts with Chinese television and online broadcasters, as well as sponsorships with Taiwan-based Cathay Financial Group and with popular brands of beer, sports drinks and other goods in the world’s most populous country.
NBA officials have not disclosed financial details on the China business, but say China is the league’s biggest market after the US.
“We’ve seen incredible growth in the development of the audience,” NBA China chief executive David Shoemaker said.
The NBA has offices in 12 international markets including Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai.
NBA executive Sal LaRocca told a sports business conference earlier this month that India is “at the top” of the list of key emerging markets.
However, the NBA has long shown particular zeal for China and its surrounds, where it employs about 130 in Taiwan, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Shoemaker said the staff level would continue to grow.
Key components of the league’s thrust include NBA training of about 1,200 Chinese coaches, the creation of a year-round training program for elite Chinese teen players in Dongguan and an after-school program launched with former star Yao Ming, whose run at the Houston Rockets in the first decade of the 2000s lifted the sport to new heights in his home market.
Shoemaker was not ready to predict when China would rival the US in basketball in the Olympics or elsewhere, but he said the time is coming.
“There’s still some way to go in terms of the level of Chinese players as compared to the US players,” he said. “They excel in creating champions and I expect that will be the case in basketball as well.”
Shoemaker said that Shenzhen, a city of 10 million bordering Hong Kong, was an obvious candidate for an NBA game and that the Shenzhen Universiade Center, where the game is to be played, is a “world class” arena.
The Clippers-Hornets contests will be especially star-studded if attended by Hornets owner Michael Jordan and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft.
Chinese fans know the US league’s stars well, said NBA global ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, an NBA veteran of 18 seasons.
“I have been to the largest cities and the smallest villages in China, and the one constant is their love and knowledge of basketball and the NBA. Walking down the street, I am humbled that the fans know and recognize me, even though I have retired from the game.”
Shoemaker said there are no plans to launch an NBA league in China or greater Asia.
However, the league is trying to build support within its ranks to play weekend games as early as 9 or 10am on the US east coast to draw a prime-time viewing audience in China, he said.
Such a shift would not be in place in time for the 2015-2016 season, as the proposed change is a “work in progress” and would only be enacted “with the full buy-in of the teams and the owners and the players themselves,” he said.
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