(Reuters) - The National Basketball Association (NBA) is opening a glitzy “lifestyle destination” complex with an official basketball court, a hoop-themed restaurant and a children’s zone.
You can train like Kobe Bryant, or even a Laker girl, at a state-of-the-art fitness center.
Perhaps you could spend the day at an interactive carnival, either shooting jump shots against a virtual LeBron James or participate in a two-on-two competition with friends or fellow visitors.
The NBA experience in the $1.5 billion, 2,300-acre sports and entertainment superstructure is not in Beverly Hills or the shadow of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
It is on the outskirts of Beijing.
“China is our number one market outside of the United States,” Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International, told Reuters. “The growth has been very significant and very much on track, and we are very much still just scratching the surface.”
Many people in the United States believe basketball entered China’s public consciousness when Yao Ming joined the NBA. Though he had a enormous impact, the game had a huge following well before the 7-foot-6 (2.29 meter) center became a member of the Houston Rockets in 2002.
The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers played two preseason games in China in 2012 and the knowledge of NBA history by the fans stunned league officials.
“Bill Russell came to our preseason games in October,” NBA China CEO David Shoemaker said in an interview. “And in both Beijing and Shanghai ... we’re talking about a young generation of fans here ... we introduced Bill Russell to them without any real description of what he did.
“Standing ovation in both arenas. It was amazing.”
Although Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, a Harvard-educated Chinese-American, currently carries the Sino banner in the NBA, 300 million play the game in the basketball-mad nation. Commissioner David Stern said the NBA water-cooler talk in China is similar to anyplace in America.
“The discussions are all the same ‑ about last night’s games, about possible trades, about the (salary) cap, about revenue sharing,” he said. “It’s really quite extraordinary.”
The league has capitalized on its popularity by establishing the Chinese Basketball Association Dongguan Basketball School and NBA Training Center for potential pros.
“We have recruited elite juniors age 12 to 17 and they train in an NBA facility to become top-level basketball players,” said Shoemaker. “It’s a collaboration with the CBA. We use our most modern techniques from a coaching level, from a nutrition level and from a physical training level.
“It’s one of many ways we can partner with the local federation on the ground in China to further generate the next generation of basketball there.”
Yao was the catalyst for the NBA’s soaring popularity in China but the now-retired eight-time All-Star plays down his influence in the game’s popularity.
“Basketball had a big influence in China, even before the NBA got there,” Yao, who retired from the NBA’s Rockets in 2011 because of a foot injury, told Reuters. “There was a foundation.
“Fans in China knew the stars of the league long before I played. And you know, I wasn’t the first Chinese player in the NBA. I was the third.”
The league is helping to develop the fourth cutting-edge NBA-style arena in China, in Xiamen, on the southeast coast.
Sina, the online media company, streams one live game per day and the average number of viewers during the first six weeks of the current season were 1.16 million, up 172 percent from the same period in the 2010-11 season.
“We are growing very fast internationally,” said Ueberroth, noting that last week’s All-Star game was televised in 215 countries in 47 different languages.
“It’s a big priority in our business. It’s very profitable, particularly in a place like China. We’ve got over 20 marketing partners there.
“The official beer of the NBA, official soft drink of the NBA and yes, even the official milk.”
Ueberroth hopes to bring the NBA’s blueprint for success to other countries like India, Brazil and the Philippines. Africa, she said, is fertile ground.
But the still burgeoning success of the league in China may be hard to duplicate. NBA apparel and footwear is sold in more than 2,200 Adidas stores in the country of at least 1.3 billion people.
“Our fans base there is so knowledgeable and it just impresses every person that’s part of the NBA family that goes over,” Ueberroth said. “It’s the history of basketball in China.
“It was brought by missionaries in the late 1800s, it’s been part of the fabric and played throughout China. China had a team in the 1936 Olympics.
“It has a very strong history in their culture.”
Editing by Gene Cherry