The NBA's drive into China moves up a gear this week as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic give fans in Shanghai and Macau a close-up look at the world's best basketball league.
Basketball is hugely popular in China, where an estimated 300 million people play the sport, with Chinese stars such as the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming (
Such enthusiasm offers the chance of big bucks for the NBA, through advertising revenue, merchandise sales and television rights.
"China is the number one market for the NBA outside the US," NBA spokesman Matt Bourne told reporters ahead of the pre-season games in Shanghai and the glitzy gambling hub of Macau.
"We hope the NBA China Games 2007 will give our great fans in China an opportunity to experience the NBA up close and personal," he said.
In recognition of the growing interest, organizers last month set up NBA China, a subsidiary that hopes to move towards an eventual NBA-managed Chinese domestic league.
The Chinese national league is already a major television draw, and the NBA wants to link up with the China Basketball Association (CBA) to further boost fans' love of the US game.
"In the United States the development of basketball has already reached a certain saturation point," CBA director Li Yuanwei (
"China is huge and it's a unified market so that's why China has the chance to follow after Europe and develop the world's only newly flourishing professional basketball market," Li said.
With Yao selected as the first overall pick of the 2002 NBA Draft, the league has already drawn so much interest that 51 Chinese television networks carry NBA games and a weekly basketball show.
The Milwaukee Bucks' Yi, who was drafted in the first round this year, is expected to further boost the team's China fan base as he begins his season there.
"There is a lot of anticipation surrounding Yi's NBA debut both in the US and China," Bourne said.
While the NBA boasts lucrative advertising partnerships in China with 20 major global brands, it also brings the sport to aspiring young athletes by holding regular basketball training camps throughout the country.
Ahead of the China preseason matches, massive posters of Orlando's Dwight Howard and Cleveland's LeBron James have been hung at the entrance of the hotel in Shanghai where the teams are staying.
James' Cavaliers, who made it to the NBA Finals this year, are set to face Howard's Magic today in Shanghai before travelling to Macau for another match on Saturday.
This year's fixtures will be the third time that the NBA has played pre-season games in China, the first being three years ago when Yao's Rockets met the Sacramento Kings in Shanghai and Beijing.
The Magic will also face the Chinese national team in Macau tomorrow, making them only the second NBA team to face China since the Washington Bullets played in 1979 in the league's first Chinese foray.
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