There is a story that has floated around the NBA for so long it’s hard to guess where the facts end and the legend begins.
Back in 1989 then-NBA commissioner David Stern saw China as this amazing untapped market: Hundreds of millions in population (it’s now about 1.4 billion) and many of them basketball fans. The trick was creating an entry point into a fairly closed society.
So Stern traveled to the headquarters of China Central Television with a box of video cassettes filled with NBA games. He offered them to the network gratis: Just televise these games to test interest, and if that interest is mutual ...
Like many of Stern’s ideas, this one was inspired. In January, Tencent, a multi-platform Chinese communications company, signed an exclusive five-year deal with the NBA to stream games over the internet. China now is second only to the United States as the NBA’s most important market with an estimated 300 million basketball fans.
From a Charlotte standpoint I think it’s great for the players to get that type of exposure.
Michael Jordan, on the Hornets’ participation in the NBA Global Games in China
That’s why the Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers are playing two exhibitions on the Chinese mainland. It’s a tradition that started in 1979 when the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) traveled around the world to play the Chinese National Team.
Now the NBA sends a pair of teams to China every preseason. The Hornets volunteered for this assignment for numerous reasons: To extend the momentum that started last season with the rebranding from the Bobcats name, to network with the Chinese business culture (there are more than 30 Chinese companies with Charlotte operations), and to provide some national attention the franchise doesn’t often receive.
“From a Charlotte standpoint I think it’s great for the players to get that type of exposure,” Hornets owner and NBA icon Michael Jordan said Sunday. “We’re still up-and-coming. We want to be one of the elite teams. We want to be one of those teams that competes each and every night on (national) TV and in the playoffs
“This is an experience I want the players to understand and accept.”
1.4 billion Estimated population of China
300 million Estimated number of NBA fans in China
215 Countries where Hornets’ exhibitions in Global Games are being televised
This is only the second time Jordan has traveled to China. The first time, 11 years ago, he was so mobbed by fans that the Chinese government asked him to refrain from leaving his hotel while officials took a day or two to figure out better crowd control.
In a sense Jordan helped start all this in 1992 as part of the “Dream Team” for USA Basketball. Now basketball rivals soccer as the most global of sports. Spain has the Gasol brothers. France has Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and the Hornets’ Nic Batum. China had Yao Ming and now treats Hornets guard Jeremy Lin, an Asian-American, as its adopted idol.
Not that Lin trumps Jordan here. The cheer from the crowd in Shenzhen when Jordan was introduced was so deafening that Lin joked with Chinese media, in Mandarin, that the boss put him in his place as far as popularity.
Got in early
It’s commonplace now for major leagues to send teams out of their markets to promote their sports. The NFL plays in London. Baseball has gone to Japan.
But the NBA was most aggressive in this regard, particularly in China, now having played 20-some exhibitions in the country. Tickets for the two Hornets-Clippers exhibitions quickly sold out despite pricing courtside seats at about $500 per ticket.
“Ultimately it’s a realization that the United States is a very small part of the global population – roughly five percent,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview with the Observer. “This is a truly global game: It’s been part of the Olympics since the 1930s.
“Whether it’s in China or India or Africa or Europe or Latin America, there’s a real hunger for the NBA. Soccer is still the No. 1 sport globally (but) the NBA is probably the best-known single league in the world because there are multiple great soccer leagues.
“So for us, in some ways I feel like it’s the manifest destiny of this league to grow and expand.”
The infrastructure, particularly in China, is there. NBA China has about 150 employees in four offices across the mainland. Blacktop public courts with hoops are nearly as commonplace in China’s major cities as in New York’s boroughs.
“What’s not quite understood in the West is basketball is easily the most popular team sport in China,” said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker. “My pet theory is basketball is easy to play and easy to follow.”
Shoemaker backs up his theories with numbers: Last season 690 million unique viewers from China tuned in to NBA basketball. The NBA has 100 million social media followers there.
So Shoemaker knew the meter would move with the Hornets bringing Lin to China to play games for the first time.
“It’s a little tough on Jeremy,” Shoemaker said of the fan interest and media obligation, “but it’s going to be great.”
The Hornets lobbied for this opportunity long before signing Lin as a free agent over the summer. The franchise already had several important projects: Hosting the 2017 All-Star Weekend, overseeing renovations to Time Warner Cable Arena and the start-up of a Development League franchise in the fall of 2016.
But team president Fred Whitfield and chief marketing office Pete Guelli saw this as an opportunity at the right time in the franchise’s 11-year history. General manager Rich Cho and coach Steve Clifford concurred. (This is Clifford’s third China trip, having been an assistant on Houston and Orlando teams that also participated.)
“One of the questions we had to ask (after the name change) was ‘How does this brand grow globally?’ ” Whitfield said. “We told the NBA this might be a great opportunity to bring our team to China and put the city of Charlotte on a global stage.
“Having come over here 10 year ago as a Jordan Brand employee, with Michael, I was fortunate enough to be able to see just how the Chinese population gravitated to him … We talked about ‘What if?’ ”
So Whitfield sought partners to maximize the value of this trip. Charlotte Chamber of Commerce president Bob Morgan sent a representative on this trip to network with Chinese companies doing business in Charlotte. Jordan Brand president Larry Miller made a marketing push on the mainland to coincide with Jordan’s return trip.
And the Hornets – often attention-starved as far as national television appearances – get two games on NBA TV. The Hornets-Clippers exhibitions are being aired in 215 countries and territories, broadcast in 15 languages.
So busy as this franchise and its owner are, everyone made time for the Global Games.
“We want to grow,” Jordan said. “Having a solid basketball team means a lot, but at that same time having a fan base that reaches not just Charlotte and North Carolina but outside of that is important.
“We need to provide these opportunities to our team.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell