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Mark Tatum: “The Chinese fan is a very sophisticated, knowledgeable fan”

  • League says most die-hard NBA fans play basketball before the age of 12
  • NBA working with the Ministry of Education in China on a grassroots junior NBA programme
  • 76ers and Mavericks chosen for China Games because of earlier marketing activities in the country

Mark Tatum’s busy itinerary in early October sent out a clear message about the NBA’s expansionist ambitions. The deputy commissioner and chief operating officer for the league made a two-day excursion to the Fiba World Basketball Summit in the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an, before flying to Shanghai and Shenzhen to watch the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks spearhead the league’s marketing efforts in the latest series of NBA China Games.

The location for the events indicated the shared importance of China to the commercial ambitions of the league and basketball’s governing body, and in contrast to the squabbling that threatens to undermine European basketball, the two parties expressed their desire to work together to make the most of the opportunity.

“Our goal is the same as everyone here, it’s to grow the game of basketball, to make basketball the most popular sport in the world,” Tatum told the Summit. “All over the world, we are forming partnerships to grow the game of basketball, whether that’s at grassroots level, or elite level.”

Pyramid model

Tatum explained how the NBA believes in a ‘pyramid model’ for the sport in which the priority was to expose as many people in different markets as possible to the game at a young age.

“We know that for most die-hard fans of the NBA there are a couple of things they have in common: they all play basketball and they all played basketball before the time they were twelve years old,” he said.

To this end, the league has been working with the Ministry of Education in China on a grassroots junior NBA programme which will be in 4,000 schools in 31 different provinces, reaching four million children this upcoming season.

“We’ve come in and we’ve worked with them to train the trainer, and to train coaches on how to teach the game the right way, in their actual school systems – elementary school, middle school and high-school,” Tatum said.

Rather than see the Chinese Basketball Association as a rival to the NBA’s popularity in China, he said the US league was looking to build up the quality of its Chinese equivalent because this would ultimately build engagement with the sport. He explained how the NBA has organised exchange programmes with the league and that three teams from the CBA were currently playing pre-season games in the United States as part of this programme.

Former NBA player Will Bynum playing for the Guangdong Southern Tigers in China. Bynum played in the CBA after being released by the Boston Celtics. (Photo by Palani Mohan/Getty images).

China Games

The decision to invite the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks to play in the NBA China Games was driven by the global appeal of their increasingly cosmopolitan rosters and recognition for the teams’ efforts in marketing those players to Chinese audiences. 15 international players appear across both teams, including Chinese player Ding Yanyuhang, who featured prominently in the Mavericks’ marketing activities around the pre-season fixtures, but barely played because of injury.

“The Chinese fan is a very sophisticated, knowledgeable fan,” said Tatum in an exclusive interview with SportBusiness after his keynote speech to the conference. “[76ers player] Ben Simmons was the rookie of the year last year and they know his teammate Joel Embiid, they know [Mavericks players] Luka Dončić and Dennis Smith Jr.

“Many of those players have actually already been to China to visit the market. Ben Simmons, for example, has been to China. He’s got a partnership with Nike and they’ve brought him over here.”

Tatum also acknowledged the Dallas Mavericks’ recent decision to crowdsource a new Chinese name for the team because their English-language moniker was often mistranslated to ‘little cows’.

“They actually had a contest here in China to rename the team because their Chinese name did not translate here, and so that was another good example of how Dallas engaged directly with the market to get their input on what their Chinese name ought to be.”

Similarly, the 76ers have started to differentiate their content for Chinese audiences having recently hired a Mandarin speaker to edit their output on the popular social media platform Weibo. The move has paid dividends with the team having moved from 27th up to fourth in a table which ranks engagement levels for NBA teams on the platform.

Speaking to SportBusiness after the games, Adam Davis, chief revenue officer for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment (HBSE), the ownership group of the 76ers, said the fact the NBA’s Chinese Media Partners, CCTV and Tencent, were able to select which of the league’s games to show placed a premium on player talent. To illustrate his point, he said the NBA Championship-winning Golden State Warriors were shown 30 times on Chinese television last season, while the 76ers were shown 18 times. “There’s no point trying to break China without the players,” he said.

Ding Yanyuhang of the Dallas Mavericks warming up before the game in Shenzhen, China. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)

Marketing activities

Unlike the English Premier League, the NBA plans the marketing activities of clubs overseas and decides which teams play in its international series of fixtures. This is designed to maintain the competitive balance of the league. The latest series of China Games were the 25th and 26th games the NBA has played in China in the last 14 years, and the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks were the 16th and 17th NBA teams to play in the country.

“We represent all 30 teams and what it does is it allows us to ensure that those teams who may not have the ability and the resources to do that still benefit from the globalisation of the sport,” said Tatum.

“We’re not a four-team league or a five-team league. People want to see the Mavericks; people want to see the 76ers; people want to see the Milwaukee Bucks. We’re sending the Orlando Magic to Mexico City.”


The NBA arranges a host of marketing activities to coincide with the NBA China Games. For this year’s event, NBA Cares – the league’s social responsibility program – organised two events in China.

In the first event, Dallas Mavericks players and coaches hosted a basketball clinic in Shanghai that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics. In the second event, players, coaches and executives from the Philadelphia 76ers participated in the dedication of an NBA Cares Learn & Play Centre at Lishan School in Shenzhen, featuring a newly-refurbished outdoor basketball court and a new student reading room. The project included the donation of computers, books and basketball equipment and a basketball clinic for students on the newly-refurbished court.

NBA China also organised an NBA Fan Day (presented by Dongfeng Nissan) alongside the game in Shanghai to allow a further 15,000 to 20,000 fans who didn’t have tickets for the main game to see Chinese celebrities and players from both teams participate in on-court activities and skills competitions. Tickets to the NBA Fan Day were free to the public and were made available through a series of interactive promotions conducted by NBA China’s digital and marketing partners.

Tatum said these events, combined with the activities of NBA China’s 17 partners gave the China Games a ‘big-event’, All-Star Game feel.

“[The partners] are running extensive promotions leading up to and around the game. All of that activity can be attributed, in a large part, to these tentpoles of games,” said Tatum.

[See NBA China Game sponsor activations]

JJ Redick of the Philadelphia 76ers in front of the Vivo-branded logo for the 2018 event (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)

Ahead of the latest series of games, Chinese mobile firm Vivo expanded its association with the NBA by becoming the Presenting Partner for the China Games from 2018 to 2020. The brand first teamed up with the NBA in 2016 in a multi-year deal that named it as the Official Mobile Phone Partner of NBA China. As part of its latest deal, Vivo benefited from advertising exposure through the NBA China Games logo, along with on-court branding and signage. The company has also been named as an Official Partner of NBA Fan Day and an Associate Partner of NBA Cares.

Another promotion for the game saw 76ers player Joel Embiid appear on 700 thousand bottles of Chinese iced tea brand Master Kong. The deal was arranged through the NBA China office, although the drinks brand had to strike a separate deal with Embiid to use his image. Tatum said a number of the league’s other sponsors activated by running ticketing promotions ahead of the games, which allowed them to capture consumer data.

“There’s only about 18-19,000 tickets available and the games are taking place in cities that have populations of 15 and 20 million people,” he said. “Having that ticket is really a unique and special thing and there are only a few ways you can do it. If you’re a marketing partner, you have the opportunity to host VIP guests, consumers, clients.”


League partners also activated their sponsorship rights during the China Games by purchasing advertising spots with the NBA’s media partners CCTV and Tencent. They also supported the NBA Fan day which was broadcast live on BesTV, Tencent Sports and Weibo.

The league’s three-year deal with Tencent was initially worth $500m plus a share of advertising and commercial revenue estimated to be $200m but was expanded to integrate the NBA’s international League Pass, allowing Tencent to show every NBA game. Tatum said the media company’s reach and bandwidth were instrumental in the league’s decision to partner with it.

“We have a partner in Tencent, who is also a partner of Fiba, who is terrific at getting live games out. We have over 400 live games that are distributed on Tencent’s digital platforms and all 1,300 NBA games are available to Chinese consumers through our partnership with Tencent,” he said.

In a separate presentation at the conference, Tencent vice-president Caitlyn Chen claimed the company offered a reach of 143 million core basketball fans across its sports platforms, a combined reach of 482 million basketball fans across all of its media platforms and 2.4bn monthly active users on its social media platforms. The choice of Shenzen as the location for one of the China Games was also driven by the fact that the media company has its headquarters in what is essentially the technology capital of China.

National-team basketball

With the Fiba World Cup approaching next year in China, Tatum said national-team basketball would continue to play an important role in introducing new audiences to the game and inspiring the next generation of NBA players.

He credited Fiba’s decision to allow NBA players to compete in the 1992 Olympics, and for US NBA players to compete as the ‘Dream Team’, for the growth in the number of international players in the league. Ahead of the decision there were 23 international players in the NBA; last season 108 players born outside of the United States competed in the league.

“That was a seminal moment in the growth of international basketball and the growth of the NBA,” said Tatum. “Tony Parker, who was growing up in France at the time, was so inspired by Michael Jordan that he decided to bounce the ball instead of kick the ball. Tony could probably have grown up to play professional football, but he was inspired by Michael and the reason he wears the number ‘9’ is because that was Michael Jordan’s number on the USA basketball team.”

To watch other presentations from the Fiba World Basketball Summit, click here.

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