Philadelphia 76ers sold on China market

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, July 25, 2018
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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) controls the ball against Boston Celtics forward Al Horford (42) and forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the second half of Boston's 117-101 win in game one of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden in Boston, US, April 30, 2018.

Back when Allen Iverson commanded the court, the Philadelphia 76ers were a big deal in China.

It's 17 years since Hall of Famer Iverson inspired the Sixers to an NBA Finals appearance, but now a fresh crop of Philly stars, spearheaded by Joel Embiid, are exciting a new generation of Chinese fans.

In acknowledgment of that growing fanbase, the 76ers will square off against the Dallas Mavericks as part of this year's NBA China Games on Oct 5 at Shanghai's Mercedes-Benz Arena and three days later at Universiade Center in Shenzhen.

Sixers CEO Scott O'Neil said the team is hungry for an even bigger slice of the Chinese pie.

"China's market is a basketball haven. I mean, 300 million Chinese play basketball and hundreds of millions watch NBA games on TV," O'Neil told China Daily in Beijing on Sunday.

"The NBA has a great presence here. Our approach is very much based on people relationships, and it's very long-term focused.

"The advantage of the Chinese basketball market is its size and scale. Secondly, it's the government's support and the infrastructure.

"Basketball is the number one or number two sport in the country, and with the digital appetite and the growing middle class in China, it seems to be the perfect time for an explosion of the sport."

Having struggled to hit the highs of the Iverson era of the late '90s and early 2000s, Philadelphia is engaged a much-talked-about rebuilding project.

Painstaking as it has been, the "Process", as it's been dubbed, is starting to bear fruit, with Embiid earning a selection on last season's All-NBA second team and Australian Ben Simmons making the All-Rookie first team.

And O'Neil is confident the rising young stars possess both the skills and personalities to take the Sixers, who reached the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, to the next level.

"In the case of Allen Iverson, the fans have historically gravitated towards smaller guys in the league, because you can kind of see yourself in that role," said O'Neil.

"Today we have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. These guys are transformational talents.

"Embiid is definitely like a bigger profile. His personality is a combination of Shaquille O'Neal with a will to win like Michael Jordan. Simmons is different. He's like a classic Aussie. He's all about putting the team first, all the time."

Embiid, 24, goes by the nickname "The Emperor" on Chinese social media, and O'Neil admits the Sixers' marketing machine is acutely aware of the importance and power of platforms such as Weibo and Tencent.

"For us, it's about content," he said.

"It's about getting fans behind the scenes watching the players preparing, working out and practicing.

"With these kind of opportunities, the fans get to know them on a different level. The players are incredible guys. They're smart. They're funny. They're driven. They are everything that the NBA wants to show the world."

The Sixers' official Weibo account in China already boasts 1.25 million followers and a daily readership of over 100,000.

Back in Pennsylvania, business is surging, with increased ticket sales and corporate partnerships showing 30 percent annual growth and the team rated in the NBA's top five in terms of customer service.

Finding a Chinese star to unlock the Asian market would really be a mega-money spinner, however.

At the moment, Zhou Qi is the only player flying the flag for China, albeit as a second-stringer for the Houston Rockets, leaving the league still craving a big Chinese name to fill the sizable shoes of retired Rockets Hall of Famer Yao Ming.

The developmental NBA Summer League this year has featured three other Chinese players plucked temporarily from the CBA - Abudushalamu Abudurexiti of the Golden State Warriors, Heng Yifeng of the Washington Wizards and Din Yanyuhang of the Brooklyn Nets (sidelined due to injury).

"It would be an incredible opportunity to have a Chinese player, given the market interests," said O'Neil.

"We tried last year for the Summer League. Now there are four Chinese players playing in the Summer League. I'm very excited about the future."

The NBA, meanwhile, remains hopeful that Zhou will eventually make a breakthrough with the Rockets.

Speaking at last year's NBA China Game in Shanghai, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said of Zhou: "Let's give him an opportunity to develop. I know the entire country is focusing on him, but we all have to be realistic in terms of our expectations.

"Zhou is a young player. It takes a long time to develop in the NBA. But I believe he can truly be a great player. And he has great character as well.

"I think he is an excellent representative of the people of China."

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