Pac-12 steals a march with China Game but big boys like NFL, Premier League and NBA are sniffing around

  • Pac-12 China Game saw UC Berkeley host Ivy Leaguers Yale in Shanghai
  • Regular season games overseas could soon become the norm for elite leagues
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 9:46am

Here’s a pub quiz question: which are the two overseas sporting leagues that play regular season games in China? I’m gonna have to hurry you.

Full marks if you got the NCAA’s Pac-12 basketball conference and the Australian Football League.

US college hoops and Aussie rules might not have been at the tip of everyone’s tongue but they are paving the way for elite athletic competition entering the China market.

The fourth annual Pac-12 China Game saw UC Berkeley host Ivy Leaguers Yale in Shanghai on Saturday while the second AFL China game saw Port Adelaide return to Shanghai to host the Gold Coast in May. The “home” team took the points.

The blood and thunder of a regular season clash is very different to a preseason friendly but sport has its place in creating friendly ties, “soft power” diplomacy as it it’s known.

Much of the lead-up to the inaugural AFL China game last year was dedicated to confirming it would go ahead despite international tensions between the two countries.

The latest Pac-12 China Game comes in a week where Shanghai has hosted the China International Import Expo and the US-China Trade War is still ongoing.

Money is a key factor for sports looking to China – the size of the market filling their eyes with yuan signs. Diversifying revenue is common business sense.

Having a market in China, whether that is streaming regular domestic games in the country, signing local partnership agreements or the holy grail of shirt sales, is looking increasingly important for teams and leagues around the world. The China game is just the tip of that iceberg.

It’s not just China, of course. India is on the horizon too and many of the top US leagues are already playing regular season games in Japan, Mexico and the UK. Rupees, pesos, pounds and yen all add up to a brighter future for the owners.

It could be more than economics. There is a chance that it is evangelism and a belief the world deserves to pray at the altar of the best product.

A more cynical view of that is that it is a move to preserve the sport, safeguarding its future in a country.

That could be fans or tapping the talent pool. For US College sports that makes some sense as universities around the world continue to be filled with Chinese students – one, James Zhao, was on the UC-Berkeley bench on Saturday while U-Penn have another in Michael Wang.

Even still the NBA already takes the top talent from the CBA ­– Yao Ming never went to college, instead going straight from the Shanghai Sharks to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the draft.

While the NBA awaits its next Yao, the AFL is crossing its fingers for a first. Chen Shaoliang, the first Chinese player to train with an AFL club in 2016, is yet to progress to the first team at Port Adelaide.

For the AFL, this is a football code that is particularly strong in Victoria but less so around the rest of the country where both codes of rugby and cricket are more established and the likes of basketball and football look to make inroads.

Even in sports-mad Australia, there’s only so much sport that any one person can consume.

The worry is that the same is true in China.

Port Adelaide’s president David Koch crowed that the AFL had become “the first elite foreign competition to play a regular season game for points in China beating the likes of the NBA, English Premier League, Major League Baseball and the NFL” when the 2017 game was announced.

The bad news is that they are already sniffing around.

The NBA China Games are annual and they already play regular season games overseas. The Premier League Asia Trophy was in Beijing nine years ago and it is already a decade since they raised “Game 39”, an extra league fixture played overseas.

Baseball has been – the MLB China Series took place in 2008 – but has not been back, concentrating elsewhere for now. The first NFL China Game has been pushed back several times over the last decade but is expected to take place next year.

Koch didn’t mention hockey but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said regular games were a case of “when not if” when he was at the NHL China Games in Shenzhen in August. There are plenty of European soccer leagues that want in on the action, too.

You have to fear for these pioneers, as you should for us all if all of the ground they broke is just the first stop to global leagues where China is just one stop.

That’s a lot of fans’ worst nightmares. But for the teams and the leagues, China seems the answer to their wildest dreams.