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Yao Ming’s CBA juggling act gets a boost from NBA travails

Abudushalamu Abudurexiti warming up ahead of a game for China (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

  • The CBA has instituted big changes since the national team’s poor showing at the 2019 Fiba World Cup 
  • Chairman Yao Ming has two priorities: raising standards and the commercial value of the domestic league
  • This has been helped by the NBA’s own troubles in China after the Moray tweets

It’s a safe bet that Yao Ming will not look back too fondly on 2019. The Chinese Basketball Association chairman would have started the year with high hopes, given the level of hype the Fiba World Cup raised for the sport in China.

But despite home advantage and strong backing from fans, the national team notched just two wins. Painful public apologies from Yao followed, and since the tournament he – and newly-appointed chief executive Wang Dawei – have begun a thorough reform of the CBA.

An internal post-mortem of the Fiba World Cup could only lead to the inevitable conclusion that the quality of the playing squad was just not good enough to meet China’s great expectations, and an overhaul at grassroots level has been kicked off to fix that, and to re-engage disappointed fans.

The China Basketball Open tipped off earlier in October, involving an estimated 200,000 athletes and coaches, with men’s and women’s teams from 32 cities in 16 provinces. The tournament was jointly run by the CBA and municipal provincial basketball associations.

From the grassroots up

The CBA’s academy system has also been refreshed at the lower age group levels, thanks to strategic deals signed with the Student Sports Association of the Chinese Ministry of Education. Its mini-basketball league, started in November 2017 by Yao with a new match system using smaller-sized basketballs for children, has also worked out well. Since March 2018 it has attracted 100,000 players and 9,700 coaches from 15,000 teams in more than 100 cities, according to reports by China Daily.

In addition, relationships with the Chinese University Basketball Association (Cuba) have been strengthened, with Yao personally working on facilitating direct relationships between the Cuba and CBA leagues. This is part of the association’s plan in building a campus-to-pro talent pipeline to mirror the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s contribution to the NBA in the United States.

Revamping the league

Next on Yao’s agenda is the domestic league. Yao revealed his thoughts in Beijing last month at a season-launching ceremony, saying: “The national team’s disappointing World Cup campaign hits us with a tough reality: our domestic league should take major responsibility for the lack of talent supply to the national program.”

Wang has since spearheaded several key changes to the CBA league, which include flexibility on tip-off times to cater to broadcasting and marketing partners, an extension of the regular season to a lighter schedule of eight games every three weeks to allow players to recover, and a major revamp of officiating standards.

Yao Ming watches the FIBA World Cup Qualifying match between New Zealand and China in Auckland on July 1, 2018 (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Several other changes show Yao and Wang have taken cues from the NBA, including ‘luxury taxes’ and salary caps, and a lottery system at next season’s CBA draft to randomly decide player selections for teams that miss the playoffs. The goal for Yao: increase the business value of the CBA and make it the “nation’s favourite sports league”.

According to a Deloitte white paper on the CBA’s commercial performance, released in August this year, a five-level sponsorship structure now drives the league’s commercial development, with the number of sponsors and value of sponsorship rising significantly in recent years, with digital media partners added, enhancing the commercial value of the league. Club profits are also growing, with the average distribution bonus to clubs increasing by 70-80 per cent in the 2017-18 season.

A post-Morey market

There’s certainly some irony that while the CBA is trying to grow commercial revenue by mirroring the NBA template, the NBA’s own commercial value has tanked in China in recent months after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests.

China’s state television broadcaster CCTV is still not showing NBA games, and while internet conglomerate Tencent has resumed showing NBA games (except Rockets fixtures), all commercial aspects of their broadcasts are cancelled, meaning sponsors have had significantly shorter exposure times.

China sport industry expert Fu Zhenghao tells SportBusiness: “Several Chinese basketball sponsors have already started making changes to their sponsorship budgets. For example, China’s biggest travel website CTrip is a marketing partner for both the CBA and the NBA, but since there’s a lack of sponsor coverage for the NBA, they have since shifted their spending budgets towards supporting the domestic league instead.”

Just last week, the CBA sealed new partner-level sponsorship deals with Chinese dairy products company Yili Industrial Group and tourist resort operator Chimelong Group. A source linked to Yili tells SportBusiness: “Their sponsorship of the CBA has plenty to do with the Morey issue. The NBA’s image has been hard hit in China and signing any sponsorship deals with them has become riskier.”

“In comparison, sponsorship of the CBA has now become a form of nationalistic support for the Chinese government, which is why the discussions between the CBA and Yili were smooth and led to a deal being quickly signed.”

Since last month, the CBA has been in negotiations with both new and current sponsors, and market experts tell SportBusiness that the only current sponsor not to have renewed for the 2019-20 season is US logistics company UPS, which was the CBA’s official logistics and delivery partner. According to SportBusiness research, the CBA’s recent commercial deals have led to an increase of revenue of over ¥80m (€10.3m/$11.4m).

Jiangsu Dragons take on Melbourne Phoenix in the Victoria-Jiangsu Basketball Friendship Game match in Nanjing on May 29, 2019 (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Apart from Yili and Chimelong, the CBA has also claimed a first for a professional sports league in China with the launch of an official ticketing platform. The league will work with Alibaba-owned Damai Sports on the CBAtickets.com initiative, which will allow fans to either purchase tickets or watch games online through streaming partner Youku Sports.

It is hoped the service will help the league transition to a paperless ticket system, simultaneously improving the fan experience and the overall image of the CBA. A new Damai Sports store, complete with a dedicated CBA zone, will also open as part of the agreement. Fu says: “With greater sponsorship deals come increased sponsor expectations – they want more than just visibility, but also to add value.

“In the past, CBA matchday tickets have always been sold by the clubs themselves, but this deal with Damai is meant to accrue big data about the hundreds of thousands of basketball fans, with the hope that it will lead to more sales for the sports store, as well as other Alibaba e-commerce platforms.”

Yao’s ultimate challenge

While the NBA’s misfortune in China has put wind into the CBA’s commercial sails, it will be Yao’s reforms of the league that will determine its ultimate commercial value. Zhang Bing, the deputy director for CCTV’s sports department, says: “If the quality of the basketball teams and players in the league doesn’t increase, all their hard work commercially is ultimately useless. Yao Ming’s greatest challenge still remains to boost the level of play in the league.”

Not all CBA reforms have received league-wide support, with caps on the use of foreign players a concern for some teams, who fear a drop in the league’s technical quality. Yao’s juggling act includes pushing Chinese teams and players to raise their game, despite being able to field two foreign players on court at any given time this season, and only one during the 2020-21 season. Only time will tell if his gamble succeeds, but Chinese sponsors and basketball fans will certainly be watching closely.

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