The National Basketball Association, the most-watched sports league in China, is opening its first stores in Beijing and using the Olympics to boost popularity in its biggest overseas market.
Two merchandise stores in downtown Beijing, smaller versions of the league's flagship in New York, will open this month and are the first of 500 to 1,000 planned in China, NBA China Chief Executive Officer Tim Chen said.
Sales of NBA goods at the 50,000 licensed outlets may rise 40 percent this year, buoyed by the August 8-24 Olympics, he said.
"We've had super growth in the last couple of years and when we look at the potential, it's just amazing," Chen said in an interview yesterday. "After the Olympics, people in China will know more about our players and that widens the fan base."
Lifted by the success of Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and booming basketball participation, the NBA has come a long way in China since the days when it didn't charge for its television feed two decades ago.
Chen said 450 million viewers watch the NBA in China and the Chinese Basketball Association estimates 300 million people play the sport.
Numbers like that helped persuade investors including Walt Disney Co's ESPN and Hong Kong mogul Li Ka-Shing to pay US$253 million together for an 11 percent stake in NBA China in January.
Growth may continue because the league's commercial partners are concentrated in Beijing and Shanghai, Chen said.
"One day we'll go into 30 to 40 more cities and we'll have more coverage," Chen said in Beijing. "It's just the beginning."
The NBA is putting its stamp on the Beijing Olympics.
Yao and his teammates are scheduled to open their campaign for China's first Olympic basketball medal against a United States squad including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. More than 50 NBA players will take part in the tournament.
Games will have an NBA feel too after Beijing organizers asked the league to bring its mix of loud music and flashing scoreboards to the Wukesong stadium that hosts the tournament. NBA officials are even training cheerleaders.
"We're bringing in 35 people from NBA USA to help with game presentation, to make it more fun," Chen said.
The NBA's involvement at Wukesong stadium will continue, with up to 100 events slated next year, Chen said. Those include the NBA China Games in October, involving two league teams.
(Shanghai Daily July 3, 2008)