I've heard some skepticism in the past about whether there are really 300 million people in China who "play basketball." Based on what I've seen in my three years here, I'm skeptical of that number too. That's about one out of every 4.5 people. No, don't think so. Basketball is definitely popular, but not that popular.
Photo of Dwight Howard in Shanghai from Getty Images
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Watch out "Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol." The National Basketball Association is launching its latest reality TV show, but fans will have to understand Mandarin Chinese to watch it.
"Mengniu NBA Basketball Disciple," airing in China starting in May, is part of the NBA's effort to build its popularity in the world's most populous country. The show follows the formation of a partnership that could lead to an NBA-backed league in China.
"We're having an incredibly exciting season here in run-up to the playoffs and you can absolutely feel that very much in China just as if you were in any of the cities here in the U.S.," said Heidi Ueberroth, president of the NBA's international business. "The popularity of the game in China is at an all-time high."
The NBA has supported Chinese basketball for decades, including first hosting the Chinese national team in 1985. Chinese interest spiked after 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming joined the NBA in 2002. The league now has 51 different networks broadcasting games in China.
The show, a basketball competition in 64 cities involving retired NBA stars, will be broadcast on Shandong TV in mainland China on Friday nights from May 22 to August 28. The winner will receive an all-expense paid trip to try out for the NBA's lower-level developmental league.
Chinese dairy company Mengniu, an NBA marketing partner since 2007, is the show's main sponsor. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
An estimated 300 million people -- a total equal to the entire U.S. population -- play basketball in China, the NBA said, citing data provided by the Chinese Basketball Association. China's government also is planning to build basketball courts in up to 800,000 rural villages.
The number of viewers of league programing in China rose 34 percent last season to a record 1.6 billion, while traffic on the Chinese section of NBA.com has surged more than 50 percent.Read the entire article
The NBA does have something special going on in China though. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a Chinese man or woman say that he or she wants to go to America "so I can see an NBA game." Out of all the reasons I've heard people say they want to visit or live in America, that is by far the most popular I've heard.
While the NBA is undoubtedly pleased about its global growth, I'm curious about how much this expansion in China has paid off so far.
Sure, the NBA sells a lot of merchandise. The only problem is that most of it is shanzhai, or counterfeit goods. If a factory in southern China makes illegal LeBron James jerseys, the NBA isn't going to get a cut of that money. And believe me, there is a lot of fake NBA stuff floating around China. Surely, the NBA has to be one of the biggest supporters of getting Chinese officials to enforce intellectual property rights.
The NBA already has an amazing depth of international talent. It, more than any other American sport (except maybe baseball and Latin America), has embraced globalization and opening its fan base to the entire world.
The NBA's global popularity is already paying off for the league. I imagine in the future that the NBA's push in China and other countries will continue to be worth the investment and effort.