Basketball diplomacy: How Australia’s league hopes to entice Chinese fans away from the NBA

Exhibition games, live streaming in Mandarin and by next year a ‘Chinese-influenced’ team all on the agenda for Aussie’s NBL

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 7:28pm

It’s not the only sporting organisation trying to get a foothold among China’s potentially huge market – but the chief of Australia’s National Basketball League hopes it has some key advantages.

An NBL All-Star team will play China’s national team in Beijing, Jilin and Dongguan on July 5, 7 and 9, with all three games broadcast on Fox Sports in Australia. Team China will then take on Melbourne United and the Brisbane Bullets Down Under as they prepare for the Asia Cup in August.

It’s all part of a masterplan that NBL chief executive Jeremy Loeliger hopes will see the Aussie game take off among China’s army of basketball fans.

The sport is generally reckoned to be the most popular in the country, but right now it’s the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and America’s NBA that dominate.

But with former NBA Hall-of-Famer Yao Ming now in charge of the previously haplessly run CBA, Loeliger believes there’s huge opportunities for China and Australia to work together; he even aims to have a ‘Chinese’ team in the NBL by next year.

“If we’re going to make Asia one of the global centres for basketball, we need to work closely together as the two big powers in region,” Loeliger tells me by phone from Beijing, where he is trying to woo potential sponsors and commercial partners.

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“We’re very much encouraged by the fact that Yao is now at the helm. He has a very progressive approach to commercialisation and development of the sport in China and I’m very encouraged by some of his ideas. We stand ready to help him in any way we can.

“I think basketball in China is about to take off. We’ve seen it happen with soccer and we’re about to see it happen with basketball and China will become an extremely important player in the world market under Yao’s leadership.

“Organisational change is always difficult no matter what industry you’re in and there’s probably a huge amount of expectation on Yao’s shoulders to introduce change and I’m confident he will, but like everything, good plans take time.”

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The NBL has been around since 1979 and had a golden age in the mid-80s to 90s before a slump. It has been on the up again recently under new ownership, and had a boost to its credibility at the recent NBA draft when Oklahoma City picked American Terrance Ferguson in the first round; he had skipped the usual route of US college basketball after leaving high school to go pro for a season in the NBL.

It’s the second highest team participation sport in the country (according to Basketball Australia), there’s a host of Aussies starring in the NBA, and the national team was fourth at the last Olympics. Meanwhile in China, some 300 million people are reckoned to play regularly and the national team has long dominated in Asian competition – though the NBA has a decades-long headstart on the NBL in terms of promoting its product.

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With China and Australia ever more increasingly tied economically, and both national teams now competing in Asia, Loeliger is hoping to benefit politically and commercially from some sporting diplomacy.

“Relations between our countries are very strong but in order to promote that, from a sporting perspective, basketball is a common denominator,” he says.

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“Before taking on this job I was part of a law firm doing a lot with cross-border trade and M&As, and sports diplomacy was a fantastic way to break down cultural barriers, get people into a comfort zone where they were more connected on a human level – and it became more and more evident that with Chinese and Australian counterparts, basketball was the common denominator.”

NBL games were streamed on Sina and Youku in China last season without, Loeliger admits, much of an effort to alert Chinese people to that fact. The coming exhibition games, he hopes, will whet the appetite of China fans for the new season tipping off in October.

“If you view basketball fandom as a continuum here in China, at one end the CBA is very relevant with the majority of players Chinese and perfect prime-time slots for broadcasts in the local market, but historically the TV production has been very much about sport and less about entertainment,” says Loeliger.

“At the other end you have the NBA which is on at much less ideal times, has less relevance from the point of view of Chinese players participating and is skewed very heavily to entertainment, some of which gets lost in translation.

“In the NBL most of our games are around 5.30 Beijing time so it’s a perfect lead-in to the local competition, has direct relevance with hopefully more and more Chinese players involved, and is fantastic quality basketball and production. We broadcast all our games with bespoke China graphics and Mandarin commentary so it’s easily consumed and the perfect hybrid.

“We’re very conscious that we’ve got to walk before we can run, we’re still just finding our feet ... but all the infrastructure is in place to do a much bigger and better job this season.”

A couple of young Chinese players featured in development squads in the NBL last season, but Loeliger hopes to have a team composed largely of Chinese players and backed by Chinese investment by the 2018-19 season.

“It’s two quite different styles of basketball in China and Australia and in order to play on the world level you need to play a global form of game. It’s quite different week-in, week-out in the CBA and NBL and the more international exposure we can get playing against one another more often, at national and club level the better,” he added.

“Most likely we’ll have a team on the Gold Coast with significant Chinese influence, a great emphasis on Chinese players, Chinese ownership and sponsorship as well – not just lip service but making it meaningful, not just here in China but also to the Chinese community in Australia.

“There’s a big Chinese population in the Gold Coast, but also big Chinese tourism there and Chinese investment in property, commerce, everything else – so it seems sensible to pursue.”