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Warriors remain the most popular NBA team online in China in 2019

China-based sports digital consultancy and marketing platform Mailman has released its NBA Red Card report today, which analyses the online influence and digital performance of the American basketball league in China.

The NBA Red Card 2019 report uses six different metrics to measure the online influence of NBA teams and players in China, primarily based on the following social media platforms: Weibo, Douyin and Toutiao.

The report also carries out a content analysis of the top five NBA teams current players and former players, comparing their engagement in China against their digital performance on Chinese social media channels to reveal the reasons for their success in China, as well as projections on how the NBA and its sponsorship market in China will evolve in 2020.

Most popular team in the NBA

The Golden State Warriors remain the most popular NBA team online in China, with all NBA teams boasting a cumulative 47 million new followers online, around two times more than last season. This growth was propelled by mostly a “Big Three” made up by the Warriors, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers, who all scored significantly higher than the rest of the NBA across all digital metrics. These three teams, together with the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics, made up the list for the top five most popular teams online in China.

Most popular current player in the NBA

Jeremy Lin, the first Asian-American player to win an NBA championship ring, is the most popular current player, despite a lack of playing time. Lin spent his last season in the NBA split between the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors, and played only 27 minutes for the Raptors, which won the 2019 NBA finals by beating two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors 4-2 during the series.

Lin is the most followed basketball star online in China with a combined 12.5 million followers on Weibo and Douyin, and is also the player with the highest average engagement.

At time of reporting he has just signed with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Beijing Shougang Ducks, after failing to attract any offers during the off-season despite being a free agent.

After Lin, the other popular players online include Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors), Russell Westbrook (Houston Rockets) and Chris Paul (Oklahoma City Thunder).

Most popular NBA legend

Kobe Bryant, who retired from the sport in 2016 after 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, remains the most-followed NBA former player in China, beating Dwyane Wade, Stephon Marbury (currently the head coach of the Beijing Royal Fighters), Tracy McGrady (who previously played basketball for China’s Qingdao Doublestar Eagles) and Shaquille O’Neal. He has the most followed Weibo account of any basketball player online in China, surpassing Lin.

Bryant’s continued popularity with Chinese basketball fans can be attributed to his on-the ground presence, having visited China for the last consecutive 16 years, as well as his commercial exposure, with over a dozen partnership deals, including the launch of his own e-commerce store in business-to-consumer retail marketplace T-Mall earlier this year, which, beyond monetisation, also gives a tangible connection with fans through original products with a local shopping experience.

Analysis from the NBA Red Card Report

International sponsorship rights are now available, offering new opportunities for NBA teams and Chinese companies to collaborate. NBA teams can directly drive revenue from China and are now, more than ever, in commercial competition with their NBA counterparts and other sports teams. They now have the opportunity to search for new sponsors, especially new jersey sponsors from China. From looking at sponsorship deals with Chinese companies in European football and the Fifa World Cup, it can be seen that Chinese companies are highly interested in international sponsorship rights.

The NBA and Chinese social media giant Tencent’s five-year $1.5bn (€1.3bn) extension of their existing digital partnership makes Tencent the NBA’s largest partner outside the US. Regardless of how this agreement directly impacts Tencent’s ability to grow their fanbase (social media platform Weibo, the NBA’s official social media platform in China, is a significant competitor), this is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market.

NBA legends continue to grow their legacy in China. We’ve seen a number of examples, from Kobe Bryant’s e-commerce stores, Dwyane Wade’s exclusive Chinese wine partnership called Wade Wine in 2015, and the Fiba World Cup gaining new ambassadors, including the German former Milwaukee Bucks player Dirk Nowitzki.

NBA teams will utilise their digital channels as new mediums for sponsor activation – the teams that succeed will be the ones that provide an authentic, creative and value-driven experience for fans and sponsors. As such, we will see an increasing independence of the NBA teams from the league in terms of communication strategy and execution in China.

Following the acquisition of the Brooklyn Nets by Chinese conglomerate Alibaba’s co-founder Joe Tsai for $2.35bn (2.1bn), we expect to see more Chinese sponsors and investors enter the NBA ecosystem with sponsorship opportunities in the market rising quickly.