NBA (National Basketball Association)

Why Kobe Bryant reigns supreme as most popular NBA player in China – even though he retired last year – and Warriors are top team

New report by marketing firm reveals strengths of ‘Mamba’ brand on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 10:05pm

Stephen Curry may be the vogue player in the United States, but enter China and you are in Mamba territory. For now.

Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year NBA career came to a close last year, but the Los Angeles Lakers legend continues to reign as the greatest of all time in China.

And the stats back it up, according to a 2017 NBA Red Card report by Mailman, a digital sports marketing company in China.

In six of the past 10 years, Bryant has ranked first in shirt sales in China. Eleven million fans tuned in live on tech giant Tencent to witness his emphatic 60-point final game for the Lakers.

He has nearly double the amount of Chinese social media followers as Golden State Warriors’ Curry, and his post-retirement #KB20 hashtag garnered 1 billion reads on Weibo, China’s number one social media platform.

“It’s been amazing,” Kobe told the Post. “I’m very blessed.”

That puts him firmly at the top of the report’s “most popular basketball stars online in China” category with 119 points, ahead of Curry (103), Jeremy Lin (99), Dwayne Wade (86) and Stephon Marbury (76) – all of whom are active players.

“Kobe has the ability to inspire like no one else,” said NBA China chief David Shoemaker.

“The reason we involve superstars like him is because he uses content to inspire people in China – and when he’s there in person, his inspiration is at his fullest.”

The report assessed and calculated the players’ Weibo followers, engagement and follower growth, Baidu (operator of China’s largest online search engine) and Weibo mentions, and Chinese website presence.

So how does a 39-year-old retiree trounce every active basketball superstar when it comes to popularity in China?

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Timing. When the Houston Rockets decided to draft hometown hero Yao Ming as their first pick, a peaking Bryant was looking for his third consecutive NBA championship.

He, along with formidable Lakers partner Shaquille O’Neal, was in pole position when NBA viewership in China was exploding. Bryant’s dominant but silky style is ingrained in all Yao-generation basketball fans.

“Their love for the game kept me coming back,” said Bryant.

Bryant has visited his “home away from home” virtually every year since his first basketball clinic in 1998, keeping up with tradition this year by promoting the NBA’s new youth development scheme in Haikou, Hainan, last month.

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“The clinics and camps is something that I’m really excited about,” he said. “I would also be interested in writing curriculum for kids to develop over the summer.

“I want them to have that same opportunity to learn the history of the game, and to put themselves into the shoes of their heroes, hoping one day to see themselves in the position I was in.”

Bryant has become not only China’s favourite basketball player, but favourite sportsperson. By association, the Lakers soon became the most followed NBA team in China, the Mailman report card shows.

Things naturally dipped for the team when Bryant eventually hung up his boots. His final years were already plagued by injury and inconsistent performances.

And with that, we see the rise of Curry’s Golden State. The Dubs usurped the Lakers this year as the “most popular NBA team online in China” with 83 points, Mailman reveals in its report.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have dropped to fifth (30), behind Cleveland Cavaliers (50), Houston Rockets (42) and Los Angeles Clippers (38).

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It’s a sign of the times; the new generation of basketball fans needed a new idol to worship, and what better team to follow than the record-breaking Golden State Warriors of 2016.

That, along with a lopsided Finals win this year, was just too attractive for the Chinese public to turn a blind eye to.

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A stunning 50 million viewers in China tuned in to see the invincible Curry and Kevin Durant crush Cleveland in the Finals, the Mailman report shows.

The Warriors consequently grew six times faster on Chinese social media than the average NBA team last season, and with Curry and Klay Thompson touring China once a year since 2013, it comes as no surprise that blue and gold shirts are everywhere.

The Warriors will be looking to enhance their brand even further during a visit to Shenzhen in early October, where they will face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the preseason NBA Global Games China.

While fans will be treated to a spectacle involving one of the most dominant basketball teams on the planet, many will be on the lookout for their next Bryant.

The phenomenally stylish Curry is in the front running to fill that Bryant-shaped void, having earned the title of most popular active NBA player in China – emphasis on active.

Bryant still reigns supreme for now. Steph will have to wait another year at the very least.