While the world’s focus in drawn to South Africa, where the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament is in progress, all over China youngsters are pulling on their Kobe Bryant jerseys and shooting hoops.
About 300 million people play basketball or watch it regularly in China. Meanwhile, in the world’s other major growth market, India, hoop dreams are giving cricket a run for its money.
While the game has a long history in Asia, its popularity owes much to the National Basketball Assn. and its savvy media strategy. The NBA has aggressively boosted its presence in China and India, so much so that NBA chiefs say the main challenge is keeping up with demand.
In China, the NBA is shown on CCTV5, a sports channel on the state broadcaster, which shows seven games a week during the regular season and also streams seven games online.
NBA.com China gets content not even American fans see: presenter Ya Chin Chang interviews players and coaches behind the scenes — and translates answers into Mandarin — using a mobile unit called LiveU, which sends video via cellphone connection. “We want to bring the fans where other fans can’t go,” Chang says.
NBA China CEO Tim Chen says NBA.com China has the most traffic of any NBA site in the world. “We’re an integrated platform and we’ve seen more and more of a presence for NBA China. There is tremendous growth for us in China, great passion and acceptance of the NBA by Chinese fans.”
Formerly head of Microsoft’s China business, Chen (a Chicago Bulls fan) was an important hire for the company three years ago.
NBA content and 20 live games are available on more than 730 million mobile devices in China, averaging 25.5 million unique visitors per month through Kong, operator of NBA China’s WAP site, cn.NBA.com.
NBA China bowed in January 2008 with five strategic partners who collectively invested $253 million: Disney/ESPN, Bank of China Group Investment, Legend Holdings, China Merchant Group, and the Li Ka-Shing Foundation.
One of the big drivers of the sport in China has been NBA All-Star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, who is the focus of NBA China’s efforts to promote the sport, although Bryant has topped NBA jersey sales in China for three years.
NBA China organizes events around the country, including the Big Jam Van, which attracted 80,000 visitors to each of the 24 cities it traveled to last year.
There is a cheerleader competish, and the group pushes merchandise through its tie-ins with retailers as well as its own network of eight NBA outlets. The NBA also has a pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo.
Heidi Ueberroth, NBA Intl. prexy, says the NBA really took off internationally in the mid-1990s with the explosion of satellite TV and sports channels.
“The media in general, but TV and now digital media, are important business areas for us. When we look at digital, it is one of the places we forecast the biggest percentage of growth and a huge opportunity for the NBA,” Ueberroth says.
As well as working with CCTV since 1987, the NBA also has longtime links with the Shanghai Media Group, with which it launched its League Pass program on IPTV. SMG take up to 14 games a day and translate those into Mandarin.
“Our media partnerships are very strong. And that’s been a positive. The challenge is keeping
pace with the growth, and hiring and training,” Ueberroth says.
Something similar is happening in India. According to the Basketball Federation of India, basketball is the second fastest growing sport in India, with four million participants, some of whom play in the Mahindra NBA Challenge’s community-based recreational basketball league.
Ruzbeh Irani, executive VP in the Mahindra & Mahindra office of strategy management, says, “A characteristic that is unique to India is that participation is 50/50 among male and female. Basketball in India is gaining in popularity with every passing day with an increasing number of schools and colleges encouraging their students to play.”
NBA games and programming are available on ESPN and Star Sports in India, with 40% reach of the 125 million total TV households there.
Two NBA games are available on ESPN and Star Sports via cable and satellite TV every week during the 2008-09 regular season. One NBA game per month is re-broadcast in primetime on ESPN.
Traffic to NBA.com from India grew 40% in 2008-09 over the previous season.
While Irani concedes that basketball might have a tough job unseating cricket, it certainly has the potential to overtake soccer to become the No. 2 sport in India.
That certainly looks like the beginnings of a fast break.