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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James greets Houston Rockets guard James Harden after the teams met in the 2019-20 NBA play-offs. Both teams are among the most popular in China, according to a new report. Photo: EPA

NBA: Jeremy Lin, Los Angeles Lakers are China’s most popular, Houston Rockets bounce back

  • Houston drop just one place on 2020 NBA Red Card Report despite being blacklisted following GM Daryl Morey’s tweet
  • NBA champions see popularity surge on social media as fans share memories of Kobe Bryant
The NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers added the title of China’s most popular team over the past 12 months, according to the latest Mailman Red Card Report, while former NBA star Jeremy Lin remains more popular than the league’s current players.

While the “Lakers Nation” grew, the biggest surprise is that the Houston Rockets survived the fallout of GM Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters to be the third biggest team on Chinese social media.

The Lakers jumped from third in the 2019 table to top spot, with last year’s No 1 and No 2 – the Golden State Warriors and the Rockets – dropping one place each.

Considering the Rockets were removed from Chinese websites and their games were stopped from streaming by broadcaster Tencent, their resilience is remarkable. That is not to say they were unaffected.
Chinese fans mourn Kobe Bryant’s death on social media

“In the aftermath of the Daryl Morey tweet, average engagement on Weibo from October 2019 to June 2020 dipped by 13 per cent compared to last season, and follower growth was last in the NBA,” said the report from the Shanghai-headquartered sports marketing agency.

However, the Rockets bounced back once the team made it through to the NBA play-offs, eventually facing the Lakers – with the Houston team’s average engagement second only to the Lakers at that point.

NBA-China timeline: one year on from Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet

Aside from the Lakers and Rockets, the other big winners were the losing finalists, the Miami Heat, who rose seven places from 2019, and the Brooklyn Nets, who jumped 14 places in a year.

The Nets can put some of their growth down to joining the Lakers in Shanghai and Shenzhen for the 2019 China Games last October.

Mailman’s results were based on data collected between October 23, 2019, and October 13, 2020 – the start date of the 2019-20 regular season and the day after the NBA Finals finished following the Covid-19 pause to the season and its resumption in a bubble.


NBA game in Shanghai goes ahead amid China's fury over pro-Hong Kong tweet

NBA game in Shanghai goes ahead amid China's fury over pro-Hong Kong tweet

By that point the NBA had returned to Chinese screens both online and on terrestrial television, with China Central Television broadcasting the final two games of the NBA Finals.

The report takes in Weibo followers, follower growth, total engagement and average engagement, plus the followers, total engagement and average engagement for Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok.

Interestingly, despite the NBA spending a year off terrestrial television screens and interrupted broadcasts online, there was a 50 per cent increase in Weibo engagement across the 30 teams compared to 2019.

Report shows Jeremy Lin leading way on Chinese social media

There was record engagement around the death of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who died in January, with fans bonding over their memories of the “Black Mamba”.

Even players who do not have an official presence on Chinese social media channels can point to their popularity, with NBA Finals MVP LeBron James counting more than 16 million followers across his fan-led accounts.

Stephen Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, took the title of the most popular NBA player, with former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade the most popular NBA legend.


Jeremy Lin says he has realised his childhood dream in China

Jeremy Lin says he has realised his childhood dream in China

NBA free agent Jeremy Lin, who spent the report period playing with the Beijing Ducks in the Chinese Basketball Association, would easily be the most popular NBA player in China if he returned to the league. He is almost three times more popular than Curry.

The report pointed out that Kevin Durant and NBA champion Anthony Davis are missing out, having not posted on Chinese social media since early 2019.

Usually released in October, this year’s Red Card Report was timed to coincide with the delayed NBA regular season that began on Tuesday.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lin maintains his popularity in China