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NBA Invasion?

Since the NBA was established in the US half a century ago, it has become one of the most influential professional sports organizations around the globe despite many hardships. Now, one NBA game is capable of attracting hundreds of millions of viewers from all over the world. The sport's economic returns have become increasingly astonishing, with nearly US$3 billion pocketed in the last season alone.

Since 1990, the NBA has held regular season games in Japan, attracted by the country's strong economy. And Asia will play a more important role in the NBA overseas development strategy in future. Why?

David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, realized the potential of China in 1984 after he took over the association and has made great efforts to develop its market through offering free and low-price TV broadcasts over the past twenty years. The NBA's global promotion strategy has two steps: get in and go out.

The first move is to attract the most talented players from their home countries to the NBA with high salaries and international prestige. In 2003's season it boasted 73 international players from 34 countries and sent live broadcasts of the finals to 212 countries in 42 languages. Three years earlier, the number of those Chinese watching Wang Zhizhi's debut in the NBA via TV was 300 million.

After creating an international star, the NBA goes to phase two. It uses the McDonald's Championship and self-funded overseas preseason games to expand its influence abroad. The acquisition of Yao Ming and the launch of the China Games signal that the NBA has China in its sights.

The NBA thinks globally but has until now remained overwhelmingly American. The annual retail income of the NBA spin-offs once reached US$2.5 billion in the US with only US$300,000 from overseas. The direct economic benefit of the China Game may be limited, but for the NBA the real prize will be a 1.3 billion-strong market.

In the near future, more NBA franchised stores will open in China, while it's still hard to find any tie-ins for the domestic basketball association, the CBA. Besides, after the end of its Golden Age in the 90s, marked by the departure of its three biggest boys (Wang Zhizhi, Menk Bateer and Yao Ming) for the NBA, CBA fever touched rock-bottom with a record-low ticket price of 10 yuan, or US$1.2.

Local enthusiasm for the NBA China Game ran so high the black market price for a 1,000-yuan (US$120) ticket to the Shanghai game soared to 15,000 yuan. The NBA is clearly superior in terms of packaging and marketing its games and stars, leading some to worry about its impact on CBA's market.

But not everyone fears the NBA, including Li Yuanwei, director of China's basketball administration center. "We welcome the NBA, we want to learn from them." He agreed that as a competition, the NBA game itself is an attraction. "Before we only had the TV broadcast, but now we have the live show, so no wonder there's a rush for tickets."

Li has witnessed a whole process of CBA reform and development. "We are studying the NBA, or at least it's the best reference at the moment." From the professional stars tournament a decade ago to the advanced training camp this July, the CBA has shown a pretty liberal attitude to the NBA.

"Yes, we had many debates before on whether or not to learn from them. However, by talking and arguing we cannot know what kind of risks we will encounter. We have to move forward and we've been doing so by sending people to watch and study the NBA every year."

In spite of many changes, the nine-year professionalization of the CBA has yet to make any fundamental progress and is striving for some essential reforms.

China's Professional Games Plan will soon be released by the CBA. Li says, "We have our own environment and policy, what we want to learn from the NBA are beneficial things. Even when the games change here, the CBA will still be the CBA."

(China.org.cn by Liao Xiao, October 17, 2004)

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