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NBA (National Basketball Association)

How the NBA became China’s most popular sports league, with a boost from tech giants such as Weibo and Tencent

The NBA is now the number one followed league in China online, clocking 2.9 billion video views during the play-offs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 9:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 10:05pm

When the NBA decided to open its official Weibo account in 2010, it probably never dreamt it would be so successful.

That account on the Chinese social media platform now has over 33 million followers – six million more than its supposed global-reach Twitter account.

The Weibo account clocked 2.9 billion video views during the NBA play-offs in June. No wonder the NBA is licking its lips.

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“Basketball has never been more popular in China,” said NBA China chief David Shoemaker, who sat next to former NBA star Kobe Bryant during the announcement of China’s first NBA academy to be opened in Haikou, north Hainan.

“We want to build on our extensive basketball and youth development efforts the NBA has already undertaken [here].”

A report by digital sports marketing company Mailman reveals just how many benefits the NBA has reaped since it started establishing partnership deals and accelerating its online presence in China.

The real game-changer came in 2015, when the NBA agreed a five-year partnership worth a reported US$500 million (HK$3.9 billion) with Chinese tech giant Tencent – the NBA’s largest international partnership to date.

Tencent, which boasts 963 million online users, was given digital broadcasting rights for all NBA content.

It has since gained a 66 per cent increase in viewership as well as double the average viewership of NBA games, Mailman’s 2017 NBA Red Card report reveals.

As Tencent widens its user base, the NBA gets more views. It’s a win-win.

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“There is still free content out there, around 300 games that we will broadcast for free this season,” Tencent Sports general manager Ewell Zhao told Mailman.

“If fans feel that it isn’t enough, then they’ll have to subscribe to the NBA package.

“Our subscription users this season have significantly increased at a level we’ve never seen before.”

The 2017 NBA Finals attracted nearly 200 million viewers from China on mobile alone.

The NBA is now the number one followed league in China online; seven times more discussed and with five times more followers than the top three European soccer leagues combined, Mailman reports.

And the NBA knows you can’t survive in China without mobile messaging app WeChat.

The official NBA WeChat account is the most followed sports account on the platform and attracts one million total reads per month. That’s one million from the potential 963 million monthly active users.

There is one concern, however, according to Mailman chief executive Andrew Collins.

“The NBA has made it clear that it intends to manage all of the teams’ digital and social media in China. This approach will ensure a strong online presence for all 30 teams. However, it may also lead to a lack of personalisation between accounts.”

Perhaps this explains why no NBA teams have set up individual WeChat accounts yet. And why the likes of Bryant, Stephen Curry and Jeremy Lin have decided to run their own shows in the Chinese markets.

“One emerging trend is that teams and players are increasingly focused on building their own digital ecosystems in China,” Collins revealed in the report.

“While the players are already free to pursue this, teams face restrictions from the NBA.”

Nonetheless, the potential for the NBA to expand even further in China is staggering, and as Los Angeles Lakers legend Bryant explains, watching the world’s most popular basketball league is a rite of passage.

“It’s huge. The NBA did wonders for me as a child. When we grew up overseas in Italy, all I had access to was NBA entertainment videos, so I learned everything about the league, the legends – I studied them all.”

“It inspired me to dream and helped me become creative. I’m very excited that the kids here [in China] also have that same opportunity to learn the history of the game; to put themselves in the shoes of their heroes.”