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Basketball fever in China

Asking youth a question “what is the most popular sport among your peers?”

You may be surprised to hear basketball(lan qiu 篮球). Despite basketball being quintessentially western, it is the only compulsory sport in public schools, attracting a variety of people from a young age. The combination of an increasing desire to remain healthy and more money to spend on tickets and merchandise has catapulted basketball into all areas of Chinese life. The sport currently has more than 300 million players, nearly a fifth of the country’s population. For perspective, that’s the total population of the USA.

2019 will mark a significant year in the prevalence of basketball in the country. China will host the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, in eight host cities, ranging from global Beijing to less well known locations such as Foshan. This event will further promote the already popular sport, and catapult it into the mindset of many Chinese. This big event will probably bring up the already high popularity of this sport but also increase the ranking of China on FIBA’s World rank, which is currently 7th for women and 30th for men.

The popularity of the sport can in part be attributed to the phenomenon, Yao Ming, an NBA player from China who has inspired many young people to pick up the sport. But the legacy of the sport in China has been around for a long time, it was the preferred sport of the Chinese Communist Party who believed it complemented the type of lifestyle they were trying to promote. It was considered to foster team work and healthy living, a main reason why the sport is played in schools throughout the country.

Since Yao Ming’s arrival in 2002 on the NBA Chinese basketball scene, he stirred up a lot of attention. At 7’6, he is not just exceptionally tall for a Chinese person, by anyone’s standards he was practically a human Mount Everest. His smooth skills and likeable personality have seen him become an international sensation, and has inspired China to develop their basketball nation. Yao jerseys are selling by the millions, (both genuine and knockoffs) and he has acted as brand ambassador for an overwhelming number of brands and companies, while billboards featuring his face look down over millions daily. His first game against the American NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neill, in 2003, attracted over 200 million viewers in China, around double the number of Americans who watched the most famous Super Bowl in history. In China, the NBA and CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) have a wide following and this is only set to increase.

Vying for the peoples’ attention and admiration is the American Michael Jordan, who was an absolute marketing sensation for basketball in the 90’s and still attracts similar attention today. He is often labeled the most famous American in China. Tom McCarthy, CEO of Asian Basketball Confederation Promotions, who is in charge of increasing awareness and enjoyment of basketball in over 40 countries over the continent, considers China to be his main priority and success story.

“It is by far the fastest-growing sport in China and it is only going to get bigger… Chinese love basketball.”

These days, games organized by both the NBA and CBA are broadcasted. The number of Americans in China is growing, which has increased the demand for basketball to feature in popular culture. The entrance of Chinese players into the NBA represents how the international stance of the game is allowing it to develop and reach its full potential. The last decade has seen a lot of emerging Chinese talent playing for the NBA as well as the CBA, with some of the most well known being Mengke Bateer, Adi Jiang and Yao Ming. The competitiveness between China and the USA on the basketball court will likely step up in the run up to the Rio de Janeiro olympics, as the two face each other in warm up games mid July.

The CBA was established in 1995, and had expanded to 18 teams by 2008. The league is constantly becoming more international, attracting foreign coaches and players. Before 1995, basketball careers were sponsored and monitored by the State, however the funding was not sustained, and external sponsors have promoted the internationalization of the league. The opening of the pocket to American investors has helped encourage over 200 foreign players to participate in the league and around double this number to be closely involved with it. The CBA’s aim is to introduce and sustain the best basketball league in Asia. After three Chinese former CBA players joined the NBA, the CBA began to shift its focus, and has adopted some of the rules of the NBA. Sports clubs in China are run at a local level, often coordinated by local committees and businesses. These clubs all follow the same rules laid down by the CBA and work with foreign investors, bringing in foreign players, coaches and also trading players freely. The constant adaptations made by the sport ensures it remains fresh and relevant to people’s lives.

During recent decades, as salaries and living conditions in China have caught up with the western world, the country has become a haven for expatriates. An increasing number of individuals have travelled to China, including notable NBA veterans such as Scott Burrell and Mark Strickland, who were treated like royalty, with no effort to spare luxuries such as five star hotels and private cars. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics transformed both the city and country into a more western friendly, accessible and inviting location, with the development of new restaurants, shopping malls and availability of English translations. The extent of exercise culture in China rivals that of the western world. People want to be healthy and stay fit whilst socializing –  this makes team sports, such as basketball a fun option.

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