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It’s academic | Pac-12’s China Game targets Chinese students

  • Chinese government is trying to advance American concept of the ‘student athlete’
  • Pac-12 conference leveraging the trend with its China Game series
  • Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming supporting the initiative

By Mark Dreyer

LAST YEAR, the Pac-12 Conference, one of the stronger collegiate athletic organisations that operate under the NCAA banner in the US, launched its China Game series as the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team defeated the Texas Longhorns 77-71 in Shanghai. This year, the Grade Point Average scores were boosted significantly as Stanford beat Harvard 80-70.

About 7,200 fans showed up – far more than would have done so at either Stanford or Harvard – even if the Mercedes-Benz Arena was still a little under half full.

However, with the Pac-12’s local partner being the Federation of University Sports of China (FUSC) – which reports to China’s Ministry of Education and is the solely-authorised national organisation for university sports – the focus was much broader than simply filling seats.

PICTURE: The Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai

Engine for growth

More than nine million students sit China’s national higher education entrance exam every year, meaning that the pressure to win a place at one of the country’s better universities has become suffocating. Already faced with longer school days than their western counterparts, Chinese students have seen extracurricular activities sidelined in favour of extra tutorials in a desperate bid to gain acceptance.

The demographical legacy of the one-child policy means that two parents and four grandparents fixate on a single child, with the student acutely aware that they alone must provide for the family in the years after graduation. It’s enough to make even Roy of the Rovers give up his childhood dream.

Chinese education – quick facts:
Population of China 1.4bn (2015)
Compulsory education 9 years
Academic year September to June/July
Number of students in higher education 35.6m (2014)
Number of higher education institutions 2,845

However, things are shifting. As China’s slowing economy rebalances away from manufacturing and exports towards more domestic consumption, the government has targeted the sports industry as a new engine for growth. Consumption in the sports industry at its most basic means more people actively participating in sports, all of which complements Beijing’s push to promote a healthier lifestyle.

Football, of course, has been leading the way, with President Xi Jinping backing the creation of 20,000 soccer academies and 70,000 pitches by 2020, along with 50 million Chinese active in the game, of which 30 million are elementary and middle school students. 

But plenty of other sports also have plans to grow and the Pac-12, through the FUSC, has been leveraging this current trend.

PICTURE: Stanford University basketball team cheerleaders

New events

“We’ve been organising some new sporting events nationally, such as long-distance running on campus, cheerleading performances and so on,” FUSC secretary general Yang Liguo tells SportBusiness International. “The FUSC has also hosted many international sports championships like 3-on-3 basketball, rugby sevens, sport climbing and American football in order to popularise these new sports on campus, while also enriching the lives of the students.”

Speaking at an educational summit in the lead-up to the Pac-12 game in Shanghai, Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming spoke about advancing the predominantly American concept of the “student-athlete” in China, while stressing the cultural importance of introducing more global sports. “If the relationship between the Pac-12 and China continues,” Yao said. “I believe there will be a better understanding of each other, affecting more than just the students. I think it will affect every level of society.”

Of course, it certainly helps to have one of China’s most recognised stars supporting your initiatives, a fact well known to Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, who have brought over a succession of NFL ambassadors in recent years, including Peyton Manning in September.

“Having a well-known personality back a project allows you to reach more people quickly and effectively,” Young tells SportBusiness. “Yao has been doing great things in China to evolve the student-athlete concept here and I think his impact has been enormous.”

VIDEO: Yao Ming speaks about the Pac-12 initiative and Chinese student-athletes

Graduates

Recent professional athletes to have graduated from Stanford include the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, who play in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls respectively, and NFL Pro Bowlers Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman. Harvard has a far shorter list, but the Ivy League’s student-athlete poster child may trump all of Stanford’s stars combined – at least in China.

Jeremy Lin, who is only the fourth player from Harvard to play in the NBA – and the first since 1954 – is of Taiwanese descent, but has been embraced by mainlanders deprived of a regular NBA player to follow since Yao’s retirement in 2011.

Now a teammate of Brook Lopez in Brooklyn, Lin has retained close ties to his alma mater, donating $1 million (€955,000) in October towards a combination of student financial aid and renovations to Harvard’s basketball arena.

PICTURE: Brooklyn Nets team-mates and Stanford graduates Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin

Many Chinese parents have historically frowned on sporting pursuits for their children – or indeed on anything that detracts from their all-important studies – but they could probably come to terms with a child who has a Harvard degree and pockets $11.5m in an annual salary, as Lin is estimated to earn.

Lin has previously spoken about how Harvard prepared him for success both on and off the court – a sentiment echoed by FUSC’s Yang. “Sporting celebrities and icons like Lin and Yao having strong ties to education, set a good example for their school age fans and motivate young people to dedicate themselves to both their academic studies and physical education, which keeps them on the right path for personal growth and future success,” Yang says.

Cultural challenge

Warren Leat, who oversees the Premier Skills initiative for primary and secondary age kids as the British Council’s football development manager in China, also stresses that persuading parents to allow their children to have interests outside the classroom is an ongoing cultural challenge.

“We need to make people see sport as a positive complement, not an interference,” says Leat, a challenge he says is a “work in progress”, but he’s optimistic about the changes that can be instilled quite quickly using the right methods.

“Our sessions are geared around engaging children in a positive way,” he says. “We help children learn and have fun at the same time. But it’s just as important to teach the coaches. Many tend to adopt the drill sergeant style of training that’s been used over the years in China, so we also stress that coaches need to be good role models. In some cases, you can see a coach’s entire demeanor change dramatically in the space of just a week.”

PICTURE: Ecommerce giant Alibaba is a partner of the Pac-12 China Game

Higher stakes

Opinion is still divided on how much academics still dominate in today’s China. Yang at the FUSC says: “The academic pressure is definitely decreasing and it’s clear to see that students now have more free time after class to get engaged in various activities, not just sports, but also in other areas too.”

However, Cheng Long, a teacher at Shibalidian primary school in Shanghai, says that the stakes get higher as the children get closer to the university entrance exam, known as the ‘gaokao’. “The academic pressure on Chinese students in primary school might be decreasing,” he says, “but in middle and high schools, they still have lots of academic pressure and the majority still opt to take extra lessons over other pursuits in order to improve their grades.”

Michael Jin, founder and vice president at Great Stone Gridiron in Beijing, agrees that the pressure is increasing, “especially with a lot of after-school programmes, leaving kids less and less time to play”. But he adds: “I think parents and schools are starting to realise the importance of sports more than they did before.”

The Pac-12 is clearly hoping that will continue to be the case and the conference has already scheduled its third game in China, with Georgia Tech and UCLA set to tip off the 2017-18 basketball season there. In November, Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba announced a two-year extension to support the Pac-12 China Game, having been a partner since the inaugural 2015 edition.

As for Yao Ming’s parting advice for the Pac-12?

“Come more often!”

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