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NBA arrival arouses interest and concern
By Wang Yu (China Business Weekly)
Updated: 2004-03-02 11:45

The Shanghai Tennis Masters Cup, Formula One and Real Madrid's Chinese Tour. Now, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is coming to town.

Is the fledgling Chinese sports market mature or well-developed enough to hold so many world class events? Probably not, analysts say.

"The entry of such high-end sports events, such as the NBA, is surely a blessing for the development of the country's sports industry. But how positive is the blessing? In other words, to what extent can the event bail out the troubled domestic sports market?" Wei Jizhong, chairman of China Sports Industry Co Ltd, told China Business Weekly late last week.

Wei once served as secretary-general of the Chinese Olympic Committee.

In the expert's eyes, since China's sports market is far from mature, in terms of both industrial setup and management, and more importantly - since people's consumption power is relatively weak - world class events or professional leagues may have a long time to wait before hitting their straps locally.

"I can by no means imagine that the NBA will enjoy the same popularity in China as in the United States in the short term, though there are large numbers of basketball fans here. Why? It is just because of the huge gap between China's sports industry and its American counterpart's," Wei said.

Yi Jiandong, senior sports industry researcher at the Beijing Sport University, says the NBA's presence is not a big deal at all.

"It is quite normal for the NBA to come to China. And compared with the NBA's other ambitious market expansion plans, it is not a big occasion. It's just two pre-season matches," Yi said.

"In fact, if it were not for Yao Ming playing well in the NBA, the NBA may not have considered coming here so quickly."

Of course, Yi believes that the NBA will enjoy some extent of popularity in Shanghai, because the basketball market is growing very fast in China.

And no matter if the NBA's following and the direction it takes locally, its arrival does arouse a lot of interest.

"The entry of the NBA will put a shot in the arm of China's sports industry instead of squeezing out local commercial sports events," said Jin Shan, director of the sports culture research centre at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.

"And China can also benefit and learn from hosting international sporting events."

Some people even believe that as the country's 2008 Olympics preparation is in full swing, hosting high profile events will assist for the future.

However, Wei said: "There is no direct connection between holding the Olympics and hosting a commercial sporting venture, as the Olympics is independent with its own fixed and developed marketing mechanisms."

But Chinese sports authorities and business people can certainly learn something from the NBA in terms of management and administration.

"I hope China's soccer bosses can improve their administration and management by learning from the NBA," Wei said.

As to whether the NBA's arrival will distract Chinese from local professional leagues, like the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Wei says it is too early for such concerns.

"At the current stage, China's existing sports facilities and equipment cannot meet the NBA's standards," he said.

"Therefore, if it wants to enter the market on a large scale, it will have to invest heavily in facilities. I do not think that will happen in the short term.

"Moreover, since the CBA is still growing both in its market size and expertise, we will seek more of a partnership or co-operation with the NBA, instead of adopting competitive strategies."

Wei said his firm, which is involved with many CBA promotions, has already contacted the NBA's Chinese branch for potential co-operative chances.

"Of course, future collaboration opportunities depend on how the NBA will be received locally," Wei added.

The NBA recently announced it would hold pre-season games in China in October, pitting the Houston Rockets against the Sacramento Kings.

The games will be played on October 14 in Shanghai and October 17 in Beijing, as part of the NBA's plan to increase the league's exposure throughout Asia, NBA commissioner David Stern said.

He said Beijing would be capable of hosting regular-season NBA games before it hosts the 2008 Games, possibly similar to the seanson-opening games the NBA has staged in Japan.

"I have been to Beijing and I have seen the facilities there," Stern was quoted as saying by Reuters. "The facilities exist to have regular-season games, maybe in two or three years."

This will be the second NBA visit to China, but the first in 25 years. The 1979 Washington Bullets played two exhibition games in China against local teams.

Stern said the NBA is trying to increase its profitability in Japan and Asia by securing tie-ups with Japanese companies in China.

"Japanese companies are moving very aggressively to make sure that they don't get shut out of the China market," he said.

"We are actually talking to many Japanese companies about affiliations with them in China."

Wei said Chinese companies can also seek connections with NBA games in China if the league is warmly welcomed in the future.

NBA games are now broadcast in more than 200 countries in 42 languages and 20 per cent of rosters this season are filled by non-American players.

"It's No 1 Asia, No 2 (in) Europe, No 3 (in) Latin America... but they're all very promising," Stern said.

"But our growth in China has been the greatest in terms of percentage."

Asked how much NBA tickets would cost in China, Stern said: "I assure you the ticket prices will be much, much, much lower than Saitama (in Japan)."

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