A league of its own

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Just how big can the "Village Basketball Association" become? Even hoops legend Yao Ming says he's not sure if he can get a seat.

The popularity of this year's "Village BA" was evidenced by the sold-out crowds that packed into the 30,000-capacity stands over the weekend at Taipan village in Southwest China's Guizhou province.

The two-day event attracted fans from across the nation to the tiny village, which has a population of about 1,200. Media also descended on Taipan, with national broadcaster cctv.com even providing a live feed. The finals captured the imagination of netizens on Chinese social media, with the hashtags "Guizhou Village BA finals" and "People in the stands at Village BA are not photoshopped" viewed over 65 million and 14 million times respectively on Weibo by Monday afternoon.

Four teams contested this year's finals, which tipped off on Saturday. A torrential downpour forced the championship game to be rescheduled to Monday afternoon when Team Qiandongnan prevailed 68-65 against Team Zunyi. On Sunday, Team Tongren overcame Team Bijie 57-50 to finish third.

With the teams comprised of amateur players mostly hailing from local villages and nearby cities, spectators flocked from all over the country to soak up the festival-like atmosphere. Apart from the action, fans enjoyed pre- and post-match parties, local markets serving food and snacks and music and dance performances that showcased local culture.

Chinanews.com reported that — based on search statistics from multiple online platforms —demand for hotels, restaurants and markets in Taipan was 11 times higher than the week before the tournament.

Over the weekend, tourist bookings at Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture, where Taipan is located, were up over 140 percent compared with the same time last year.

"Our hotels are fully booked. On the day the match schedule was revealed, all the rooms were instantly snapped up," said Zhang Shourun, who runs a hotel with about 30 rooms in Taipan.

"Hotel rooms are highly sought for match days. Each year our rooms are fully booked during the tournament, but I keep the price at the same level. I can't just raise prices because of the Village BA. It would damage the reputation of Taipan people."

But the most coveted spaces in Taipan are courtside. Hours before matches begin, spectators pour into the stands to enjoy performances by local dancers and various cultural activities. If you dare leave your spot for a minute, forget getting it back. Spectators thus go to great lengths to hang onto their vantage points.

"Many people even wear adult diapers so they can sit for hours in the stands. If you go to use the bathroom, your spot will be taken by others," said Xie Lingchu, who runs a shop in the village.

"Items like small portable chairs and portable chargers are all hot commodities. To ensure the best view from the stands, some even buy herringbone ladders in my shop. And of course, snacks and beverages are the most popular items."

Village BA is about as grassroots as sports get, with matches originating from the local Chi Xin Festival, a harvest celebration on June 6 of the lunar calendar. As part of the festival, locals would organize pick-up games until the action gradually assumed a more formal tournament structure.

Since 2016, the local government has done its part to support grassroots basketball development. In 2021, Guizhou province launched the "Gorgeous Countryside" campaign, which promotes development in rural China via culture, tourism and sports. A rural basketball league was also included in the campaign, and Taipan village was chosen as a regular host for matches.

Last year, videos of the games in Taipan went viral on social media, leading netizens to dub the tournament the "Village Basketball Association". This year, the first edition of the "Village BA" finals were staged in Taipan, now considered something of a shrine for grassroots Chinese hoops.

"It's not an easy job to organize such an event. All the efforts paid off, and the deafening sound of people's cheers is the best reward," said Liu Shangbo, a local sports official who has been stationed in Taipan for over a week.

"We attract more and more tourists, and the facilities here are improving all the time. Everything is on the up here. The event is helping the development of the village and it motivates more people to embrace sports."

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