The Rockets and Nets will play in Beijing on Oct. 13 at the Wukesong Arena and in Guangzhou on Oct. 16 at the Guangzhou International Sports Arena.
The week-long tour includes community and charity events, basketball development programs, player appearances, and fan promotions likely to attract viewers across China, where basketball has a long history. The sport dates back a century to an era when American missionaries turned up with a Bible in one hand and a basketball in the other to lure young Chinese to church.
Basketball has a long history in China
Basketball has evolved into a national phenomenon, with the NBA holding court over the past twenty years through live broadcasts of U.S. games on China Central Television (CCTV), on-ground events, merchandising and hype surrounding Chinese players drafted by American teams like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlin.
More recently, ex-NBA players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson are heading in the other direction, courting offers to play for China Basketball Association (CBA) teams like the Guangzhou-based Guangdong Southern Tigers and the Xinjiang Gyang Hui Flying Tigers.
Despite the massive popularity of players like NBA All-Star Yao Ming and high viewership for basketball games in China, the NBA has plenty to worry about.
Badminton, swimming and soccer are also popular sports in China, vying for the attention of sports fans, and American basketball teams and stars can seem awfully far away.
Even Chinese players like Yao Ming "seem like they are on a pedestal," said a sports industry expert in Shanghai.
In early 2008, the league established NBA China, a joint venture with ESPN, a division of The Walt Disney Co., Bank of China Group Investment, Lenovo's parent company Legend Holdings, Li Ka Shing Foundation and China Merchants Investments to nurture the association's revenue streams as the nation's sports industry has become more commercialized--and more competitive with the rise of the CBA.
Two winners will gain rare access to players
Interest in basketball certainly remains high. Nike, for instance, says demand for its basketball sportswear is up double digits this year and shows no signs of slowing down. Local sportswear marketers Anta Sports Products and Li Ning Co. are clamoring to get endorsement deals with players like Kevin Garnett and Evan Turner.
But sources say political infighting between the partners over the past two years and micro-management by the NBA's U.S. headquarters have stalled NBA China's growth and led to the unexpected resignation this month of the joint venture's CEO, Tim Chen.
To get back on course, NBA China developed the NBA Superfan Challenge, which will give two winners a chance to socialize with team members while they are in China, a degree of access seldom granted to fans even in the U.S. They will greet the players at the airport, attend scrimmages, games and post-game press conference, shadow the players at VIP events and receive behind-the-scenes tours of both arenas. They will share their experience via blogs, live online chats and interviews.
NBA partners with Tudou and QQ
"The promotion is the first time we've engaged in a user-generated content competition. It's a big step forward for us in China, which is really at the forefront of what the NBA is trying to do globally," said Eric Grand, Beijing-based senior director-marketing at NBA China. "Netizens are highly active in the NBA and basketball space. We want to provide a channel where they can focus their attention."
Basketball fans can enter the contest by uploading a self-made video about their passion for the sport on the video-sharing website Tudou.com (nbasuperfan.tudou.com) or by submitting a written entry on Tencent's instant-message portal QQ.com. NBA fans will vote online for the top 40 submissions and the NBA will pick two winners.
"Passionate old-school fans from the 1980s are still involved alongside up-and-coming young fans playing street ball," said Shannon Dix, general manager of SapientNitro, Shanghai, which helped the NBA create and market the Superfan contest. "This promotion gives all of them a chance to get involved in the NBA by expressing how passionate they are in their own way."
The contest started Sept. 10 and ends this week. NBA China, a secretive organization, is keeping quiet about the number of entries submitted so far. It has also extended the deadline twice, suggesting the campaign has not generated a flood of entries. Developing user-focused campaigns, however, is a trend that has proved popular with consumer goods marketers in China like PepsiCo, Unilever and L'Oreal.
Contest will raise NBA China's profile
The Superfan contest is also part of a new strategy by NBA China to make become a more accessible and approachable entertainment brand, a decision that is "spot on," says Darryl Andrew, the China CEO of the Aegis-owned research firm Synovate in Shanghai. "It will raise their profile further, and it will improve empathy with the brand because it is so grass roots."
The extended activity, with the community based events and basketball development program gives it "the legs to be sustained for longer than the game time," Mr. Andrew said.
Part of the NBA's challenge is appealing to a diverse target market in China, which has over 300 million basketball fans, according to CBA estimates.
Linking the contest winners to the wider audience using blogs "is creative use of what digital media allows creative marketers to do. Nearly one-quarter of the population in first-to-third tier cities goes to blogs on a monthly basis. Among teens and young adults, penetration is far, far higher," Mr. Andrew said. "More campaigns like this will allow the NBA to wean itself off the stellar appeal that Yao Ming creates in China."
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