By Xinhua writer Qin Lang
NEW YORK, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) -- As Chinese communities at home and abroad rang in the Chinese New Year earlier this month, various sports teams also did their best to join in the festivities.
At a recent basketball match, spectators were given 'hongbao' red envelopes, while halftime entertainment included dragon and lion dances, as well as a cultural presentation featuring the traditional 'qipao' dress.
Though this may sound like a scene typical of Beijing or Shanghai, it actually occurred thousands of miles away in New York City, when the Knicks took on the Detroit Pistons in the NBA. The scale of the Chinese New Year celebration is indicative both of how popular the U.S.-based basketball league is in China, and how strongly the organization is seeking to build its brand and engage with fans in the Middle Kingdom.
While the domestic Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) does have a considerable following in the country, the NBA remains by far China's most popular sports league, with help from Chinese players such as Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi. The NBA gains revenues of 150 million U.S. dollars from its Chinese arm, which has been valued at more than 4 billion dollars.
With figures such as these, it is not surprising that the NBA is going to great lengths to engage its Chinese audience, and while 'heritage nights' have become commonplace among individual NBA teams eager to cater to a particular cultural or ethnic demographic, these outreach efforts are dwarfed by the league's accommodation of Chinese history and culture.
The NBA's league-wide Chinese New Year celebration is now in its eighth consecutive year. Last year's festivities saw 12 NBA teams usher in the Year of the Dog with Chinese-themed events at their home arenas, while the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets wore jerseys bearing Chinese characters and symbolism.
This year, NBA clubs have been celebrating Chinese New Year since January 30 with a record 15 league teams hosting in-arena activities.
"The NBA Chinese New Year celebration has become a wonderful occasion for the league to celebrate and connect with Chinese fans around the world," Then NBA China CEO David Shoemaker gushed in a 2017 statement. And though Chinese sponsorship of the NBA as a whole has declined over the past five years, many firms are diversifying their outlay, with more money going directly to clubs and star players beloved of Chinese fans.
In addition to celebrating Chinese culture from afar, the NBA has also made increasing efforts to bring the product into the Chinese marketplace. Since 1991, the league has held a selection of preseason games outside the U.S., with the aim of connecting with fans who would not otherwise get to see their heroes in action.
And while initial locations included the Bahamas, Mexico and Britain, these were soon cast aside in favor of China, which first hosted games in 2004, and has done so exclusively since 2014. Earlier this year, the NBA announced that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets would star in this year's edition of the China Games, with a pair of preseason games to be played in Shanghai and Shenzhen on October 10 and 12.
Aside from being based in cities with significant Chinese populations, the choice of Lakers and Nets to play in China is probably not coincidental - the Lakers' roster features the ever-popular LeBron James, who has a huge following in China, while the Nets are part-owned by Joseph Tsai, executive vice chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
"We have seen significant brand affinity from the Asian community, and it remains a focus of ours to continue to nurture growth in such a critical market," said Brett Yormark, CEO of the Nets' parent company Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, in a statement, emphasizing the importance of accommodating China's ever-growing sports consumer market.
Although the NBA leads the way, other sports are also keen to grab a slice of the China pie. Wrestling brand WWE has held a live event in China for the last three years, and has localized a large amount of digital content in order to help Chinese fans familiarize themselves with the brand and its stable of wrestlers. Indeed, popular competitor John Cena has further endeared himself to Chinese wrestling fans by having learned conversational Mandarin, also spending several months in China to shoot a movie with Jackie Chan.
Elsewhere, the NFL has taken a consumer-driven approach to introduce the American football league to Chinese fans through a variety of digital platforms, and the NHL has staged preseason friendlies in China, with hockey great Wayne Gretzky also having been tempted to the Middle Kingdom in his new role as Global Ambassador for Beijing-based outfit Kunlun Red Star.
All this only serves to emphasize the importance of the Chinese market to overseas sports franchises, and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to appeal to Chinese consumers. The NBA has even worked in joint hands with China's Ministry of Education to create a curriculum combining fitness and basketball development. It seems that as far as sport is concerned, China and the U.S. are heading for an ever closer union.