NBA reality show another step for growth in China

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.

Chicago Bulls Tyrus Thomas (L), Brad Miller and Houston Rockets Yao Ming (rear) of China struggle for the ball during the second half of their NBA game in Chicago February 28, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

“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 push in China comes as the NBA struggles with the U.S. recession, which forced it to cut 9 percent of league jobs.

Nevertheless, Commissioner David Stern told Reuters last month NBA revenue was up slightly and attendance was holding steady. Despite slower international growth overall, NBA revenue in China, the league’s largest international market, is rising 30 percent to 40 percent per year.

“In China, the NBA has a chance to be alone among the major global sports,” said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. “It really becomes very clear that this is where new revenue comes from.”


The Chinese reality TV show is the NBA’s sixth such program overall since 2002, but the first outside the United States.

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 has surged more than 50 percent.

The league has more than 130 employees in four offices in China. In October, it formed a joint venture with sports and entertainment group AEG to build at least a dozen “NBA-style” arenas in major cities throughout greater China, and in January 2008 the league formed NBA China, a venture that could evolve into an NBA-affiliated league.

NBA China investors include Walt Disney Co’s ESPN sports unit, an investment unit of Bank of China Ltd, Legend Holdings Ltd, China Merchant Group and Li Ka Shing Foundation.

They have collectively invested $253 million for an 11 percent stake in the entity, which conducts the NBA’s business efforts in China.

Other NBA sponsors in China include McDonald’s Corp, Coca-Cola Co, Nike Inc and Toyota Motor Corp, as well as Lenovo Group Ltd and Tsingtao Brewery Co Ltd.

The NBA has opened three league retail stores in China and sales have topped projections by 70 percent.

Even sales of Yao’s jersey rank only No. 10 in China, trailing such American stars as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, according to the NBA. The league projects retail sales in China to rise 60 percent this year and another 70 percent in 2010.

Reporting by Ben Klayman