World

Can NBA goose Chinese basketball?

The cheerleaders for the Beijing Ducks professional basketball team adopt much of their style from counterparts in the United States.
The cheerleaders for the Beijing Ducks professional basketball team adopt much of their style from counterparts in the United States. Tim Johnson / MCT

BEIJING — Roars of "Defense! Defense!" reverberated from the sound system in the basketball arena as the Beijing Ducks pulled ahead of the Shandong Lions in the final seconds of a season opener. Fans erupted from their seats and pounded clappers. Cheerleaders on the sidelines flounced about, tossed pompoms in the air and chanted, "Beijing team, pour it on!"

When it comes to enthusiasm and spirit, fans of the Chinese Basketball Association can walk the walk. They're buying tickets, and rooting for their teams.

But other aspects of Chinese professional basketball look amateurish. The players lack sizzle and skill. The arenas have no box seats with corporate sponsors nor tycoons rubbing elbows over drinks. In the corridors, vendors sell a skimpy array of refreshments: bottled water, cola and popcorn.

The NBA hopes to change all that. If the world's premier basketball league has its way, it will take over management of the Chinese league and create a mini-me version of itself in China. It will recruit investors for eye-catching new arenas with corporate sponsors. It will goose the game and tap into a growing appetite for basketball in China.

Basketball already surpasses soccer as the team sport that arouses the most passion here, trailing only the love for pingpong. Some 300 million Chinese are said to be basketball fans. The number of stations that carry the 250 NBA games that are broadcast each season here has climbed from 32 to 51. In an average week, 32 million people tune in.

When nba.com launched a Chinese version in 2005, Internet users flocked to it. NBA Commissioner David Stern says Chinese now compose 30 percent of nba.com's global visitors.

Little wonder, then, that the NBA, which markets itself as a sports and entertainment brand, sees dollar signs in China. And it's not all because of Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch center for the Houston Rockets. Yao isn't even the most popular NBA player among Chinese fans. That honor goes to Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker star known to Chinese as "Little Flying Warrior."

Stern, who was in Shanghai earlier this month for a preseason NBA game, announced his vision "to really form the second NBA, the NBA of China." The plan calls for raising significant capital, he said, "to finance substantial arena development throughout China. There, I've said it."

Stern's office declined to answer queries about a potential takeover of the Chinese Basketball Association, a sign that frictions may have arisen over the NBA's ambitions. But sports marketers see the NBA as dead set to grow in China, already its biggest market outside the United States.

"I'm completely bullish on it," said Terry Rhoads, the managing director of Zou Marketing, a sports consultancy in Shanghai, noting that basketball is particularly popular among Chinese youth. "There are 400 million kids in China age 20 and under."

Basketball's rising popularity in China comes partly at the expense of soccer. The professional soccer league here is seen as rife with game-fixing.

"People think soccer is just dirty money and cheating. There's nothing good that has happened in Chinese soccer in the last decade," said Shan Lei, a sports reporter for Xinhua, the state news agency.

Basketball's popularity — and its potential — also emerges from a youthful desire for the panache and individuality that many see in NBA stars such as Bryant and Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"They are very flamboyant. That kind of speaks to this generation of young people," said Rhoads, who noted that most Chinese parents have only one child and control the child's behavior tightly.

Young people also like the hip-hop style linked to basketball, on and off the court, snapping up NBA-branded products, which the leagues says are available in more than 50,000 outlets across the country. Sales are expected to rise 50 percent this year. The NBA claims that about 400 million pieces of memorabilia and jerseys were sold last year in China.

"One of the reasons we like basketball is because of the clothing. We look more fashionable," said Zhang Siheng, a 17-year-old student who was attending the NBA preseason game in Shanghai. "You can wear basketball shoes when you aren't playing. . . . But soccer shoes can only be worn on the field."

Building up the league will be harder than selling jerseys, however. Right now, the Chinese professional league has 16 teams in 15 cities, some of them in large metropolises but others in out-of-the-way cities such as Dongguan in southern China, coal-mining capital Taiyuan, and Urumqi in China's far west. The teams, which are allowed two foreign players on each 12-man roster, often play in dreary arenas in outlying factory districts. For U.S. players, road trips can seem never-ending.

"You take a two-hour flight, and drive for three hours, then you're in the middle of nowhere," said Michael Fey, a 7-foot former UCLA center who's in his second season with the Beijing Ducks.

China has only two players in the NBA, far fewer than Serbia, Lithuania, France, Argentina and several other countries. Fey said the quality of play in the Chinese league was comparable to U.S. collegiate basketball, but not at the level of university powerhouses in his former Pac-10 division.

Chinese fans and players are confident that homegrown players will improve.

"Yao Ming is just the first," Yang Shengyu, a university student, said during a breather from a pickup three-on-three game on a city outdoor court. "There are many more Yao Mings to come."

Indeed, a second Chinese player, 6-foot-11 forward Yi Jianlian of the Milwaukee Bucks, arrived in the NBA this year, giving Chinese fans another boost.

Yi's move to the NBA is only adding to interest here in beefing up operations. The NBA raided Microsoft China last month and stole its top executive, Timothy Chen, to run its operations in China. He'll oversee an 80-person staff, which Stern said would grow "many-fold over the next five years."

Still to be seen is how the NBA will strike a deal with the Chinese league for construction of new arenas, management of the league and a slice of the revenue stream.

"I am not sure a merger is really possible with the CBA but a strategic alliance is definitely an achievable goal," said Stephanie Huang, who used to teach sports marketing at Shanghai's Fudan University and is now an associate lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Rhoads said stadium management was a key area in which the NBA could inject some know-how, opening the door to greater corporate involvement and pulling in other activities to stadiums such as circuses, concerts and exhibition games.

"Basically, they can teach them how to fill a stadium 200 nights a year instead of four nights," Rhoads said. "The NBA is world class in hospitality."

Fans said they awaited the day when better basketball arrived on China's shores.

"I like to experience the passionate atmosphere of NBA games," said Yuan Xiangbin, a 58-year-old plastic surgeon at a military hospital in Shanghai.

CHINESE NICKNAMES FOR NBA PLAYERS

Chinese sportscasters have given their own monikers to some of the top stars in the NBA. Among them:

— Lebron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) is known as "Xiao Huangdi," or "Little Emperor."

— Carmelo Anthony (Denver Nuggets) is called "Little Melon."

— Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs) is "Stone Buddha."

— Dikembe Mutombo (Houston Rockets) is called "Africa's Big Mountain."

Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) is known as "German racecar."

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this article.)

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