Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Troubled CBA

I realize that I've been doing a fair amount of sports posts recently. I apologize to those completely uninterested. I'm just having a bit of trouble getting up the energy and motivation to wax about the latest goings on in the economic crisis or the political scene over here.

An article on the Chinese Basketball Association and its myriad of problems caught my eye yesterday. The league has quite the assortment of problems.

From The New York Times:

BEIJING — With 1.3 billion potential fans, China is increasingly seen as a financial promised land for N.B.A. stars through endorsement deals, and the league itself has established a robust organization here valued at $2 billion.

But China’s own professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association, has hardly enjoyed a smooth ascendance alongside this country’s basketball boom. American players and agents describe broken contracts, unpaid wages, suspicions of game-fixing and rising resentment toward foreign players. Several players have left China after failing to receive paychecks. Last month, the league announced that it lost $17 million last season, which ended in May.

Players and coaches in China’s professional league said problems escalated last season after the association loosened salary and court-time restrictions on foreign players, part of an effort to heighten the game’s appeal to China’s growing N.B.A fan base and to bring in more lucrative sponsorship deals. The association also hoped the prowess of imported players would help bolster China’s basketball prospects for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The efforts yielded conflicting results. TV ratings soared, and foreign players found starring roles — the top 15 scorers were non-Chinese, and players like Bonzi Wells and Dontae’ Jones — who had less than stellar N.B.A. careers — frequently scored more than 40 points a game. At the same time, the dominance of foreign players fueled frustration.

“Foreigners should play supporting roles, not dominate the game,” said Zhang Xiong, director of operations for the Chinese Basketball Association.


The dominance of international players is not the only systemic problem in the 18-team league. Coaches, visiting players and their agents suspect that the outcome of some games is predetermined.

Players recounted locker-room lectures in which they were told to slack off on the court. On other occasions, they said, the best players had to sit out particularly competitive games or were sent home once their teams made the playoffs.

Gabe Muoneke, an American player who joined the Yunnan Bulls last season, said he was told by a Chinese teammate that a game against the Shanghai Sharks in November was fixed.

“He said, ‘Listen, my bookie told me we’re going to win today, so don’t worry,’” Muoneke said.


Muoneke said the incident confirmed what he and other players have long suspected: that game-fixing is a problem for the Chinese league.

“It’s common knowledge that Chinese teams bribe referees,” he said.

Read On
As much as the Chinese love basketball and as much as NBA Commissioner David Stern dreams of China being the future of the NBA, the country is having trouble embracing the game at the highest levels of competition.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention about the problems that the NBA is having and has had over the past couple years. There have been plenty.

At the same time though, the NBA and its place either at or near the top of the global sports scene is well-established. And then China's attempt at a league appears to be flawed in a large number of ways.

My only explanation is that professional sports in China are a curious phemonenon.

Sure, the NBA and European soccer leagues are incredibly popular over here. But when you turn on CCTV 5, the nation-wide sports channel, pretty much all you see are Olympic sports. This is still the case now, in 2009, the year after the Olympics in Beijing.

From my subjective experiences, I've seen far more international ping-pong, badminton, and diving competitions than I have coverage of Chinese professional basketball or soccer leagues. The masses here just don't seem too keen on supporting their local teams.

I can't say exactly why the Chinese prefer international sporting competitions like China vs. Cuba in women's volleyball compared to domestic professional sports leagues like Dalian vs. Qingdao in soccer. But from the times that I've glanced at CCTV 5, it appears that Chinese people prefer watching its athletes competing against other counties than competing with each other in professional leagues.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how they decide which sports programming to air. It sounds like it doesn't go by which gets the most ratings like here in the states, but maybe the programmers feel the country still needs to bask in the glory of their Olympic medal count.

I was a big NBA fan as a kid, but the antics of the players since about the Jordan era has left me caring less and less about it and I didn't even watch the finals this year. But most Chinese I spoke with over there seemed to think that America was just as basketball crazy as they are, when in fact every American knows that America's game is not basketball, nor even baseball anymore, its football. I know thats about the only sport I follow religously. We have so many options in today's society with the internet, a constant stream of new movie releases, hundreds of TV channels, etc... that I just cannot dedicate myself to following sports like baseball/basketball that have so many games.

Whoa, tangent, ok back on track here. Gotta go back to River Town again. Just read the part where Hessler and the other American participate in the staff basketball league and end up playing so well that the referee calls double dribble on them whenever they touch the ball. China really needs to get over this ridiculous concept of lying to itself in order to constantly save face. The only way individuals or countries improve is to honestly assess their weaknesses and mistakes and work to overcome them.

Its funny that admitting you were wrong about something is viewed with respect here in the states, but in China people go to ridiculous lengths to avoid just that.

Oh and the fixing of games/events and not paying people are two other areas that China needs to work on if it plans to be a world leader. I remember when my wife first started telling me how rampant fixing things was at Chinese talent shows, beauty contests, etc.. Then she showed me some photos of beauty contest winners and the runner-ups. It seemed like it was always some mediocre or sometimes even homely girl wearing the crown who was flanked by a very beautiful 2nd and 3rd place. Guanxi for the win.

Mark said...

Nice comment, Hopfrog.

I actually wrote extensively about the NFL, its role in American society, and it (lack of) popularity in China before. The post can be found here.

I understand where you're coming from on the NBA and its decline. Personally, I prefer college basketball. I'm a HUGE Kansas Jayhawks fan having grown up in Kansas, where college basketball is essentially a religion. I think the NBA is getting better though. It's definitely in a better place than it was five years ago. But still is lacking from the Jordan era.

I, too, wondered about whether the programers are choosing nationalism over ratings on the sports channel. That might be the case. But I wouldn't be surprised if the nationalist draws do, in fact, get higher ratings than the domestic sports leagues, which seem to be largely ignored.

I'm not sure how we could determine whether it is the programers making the call on national sports or the public enjoying such broadcasts and getting what they want.

Isn't it amazing how much "River Town" ties in with everything when talking about China?! Seriously, when I was reading that book, I had to stop myself from bringing it into my blog posts just about every day (and if you search for "Hessler" on the sidebar of my blog, you'll see that it made its way into a few anyways).

Both Hessler's tales of basketball and the double dribbling and the ultimate resentment he met for winning race he participated in say a lot about the way Chinese people feel towards sports and, particularly, foreigners playing sports in China.

I agree that the "saving face" does not gel well with sports (and other competitions like beauty pageants). At some point, the whole thing becomes absurd.

China definitely has the potential to be a basketball hotbed. There are hundreds of millions of people over here being introduced to the game.

It remains to be seen though whether the country will be able to get past these things we're talking about and be able to sustain a legitimate league and consistently produce quality players.

Ramesh said...

Nice writeup and comments Mark and Hopfrog. I too felt the "Hessler effect" when I watch or discuss sports here. There is just too much nationalism. A foreigner being better at something is just not on. Ridiculous comment from Zhang Xiong that foreigners should play supporting roles, not dominate the game. Nationalism cuts both ways - its a great uniter, but its only a step away from jingoism.

Anonymous said...

Just imagine if they loved cricket Ramesh! The India/China tensions would be really high then.