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UPDATED: December 22, 2008 NO.52 DEC.25, 2008
Full Court Press
The United States seems poised to take a big slice of China's burgeoning sports market as it expands the NBA brand

NBA EXPERIENCE: A Jam Van basketball festival is held on July 4 in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province (CFP)

In the spring of 1987, David Stern, Commissioner of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA), must have foreseen the promising Chinese market as he waited in the CCTV studio. He was there to offer a highlight tape of that year's All-Star Game as a gift to the Chinese audience, making it the NBA's first broadcast in China. But it would be more than a decade before the sport really took off. In 2004, the first NBA game in China was a smashing success as Yao Ming's return with his team the Houston Rockets caused ticket prices to soar. Now, with NBA China going strong and 12 basketball arenas in the works, the NBA is making serious inroads in the world's most populous country.

Top international market

Due to the worldwide economic turmoil, the NBA has been planning to cut about 80 jobs, becoming the first major American sports league to announce layoffs in the United States. In China, by contrast, the NBA is entering a boom period with a market value of $2.3 billion.

The dire economic situation is hitting the United States hard and the NBA needs China's help to pull through, says Time magazine. According to the U.S. basketball news website hoopsvibe.com, China ranks first among the NBA's top five international markets, ahead of Europe, India, Brazil and Australia. "Over 1 billion people," the website says. "And ratings for the Yao-Yi [Jianlian] duel left no doubt China loves basketball. The upside is obvious. Right now, the NBA is cementing a partnership to build and manage arenas in China. This means an affiliate league is coming-and soon."

Yao's Houston Rockets beat Yi's Milwaukee Bucks 104-88 on November 9, 2007, the first NBA battle between two Chinese players. Millions of Chinese fans watched the game. Yi, 21, is a rising star.

China's economic stability makes it a paradise for global investors, said Adam Silver, NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer.

The NBA has long emphasized expansion in China, where basketball is exploding in popularity among the younger generation. Its first interaction with Chinese basketball dates back to 1985, when it first hosted the Chinese national team. The NBA launched a Chinese-language edition of its official magazine Hoop in 1999 and opened its Beijing office three years later. After more than two decades of operation in China, the NBA has established four branches with 100 employees; meanwhile, the relationships that the NBA established with 51 Chinese TV stations have cultivated a huge fan base. More than 500 unique NBA products are available in China at Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Adidas stores and many other retail outlets.

A new jumping-off point

On January 14, the NBA announced the formation of NBA China with the purpose of further developing the Chinese market. Tim Chen, former Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft Greater China Region, now heads all the league's businesses in China since NBA China became independent from NBA Asia.

Five companies are participating in the NBA's China venture, investing $253 million for an 11 percent stake in NBA China. They include ESPN, a division of the Walt Disney Company, Bank of China Group Investment, Legend Holdings Limited, the Li Ka Shing Foundation and China Merchants Investments. The NBA also cooperates with the General Administration of Sport of China and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

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