NBA uses grass roots events to raise its profile among kids

Basketball's popularity growing in rural areas

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 BEIJING--The National Basketball Association (NBA) wrapped up six months of intensive grass roots marketing initiatives in China on Dec. 12, with the finals of the inaugural Junior NBA China in Beijing. Presented by Amway’s Nutrilite health products division in a multiyear sponsorship deal, the three-month program provided a support structure for roughly 90,000 11- to 14-year-olds kids to play basketball through training clinics, health seminars conducted by Nutrilite experts and a national middle school basketball tournament. The winner, Nanjing’s No. 9 Middle School, will attend the 2006 NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston, Texas.

“We went to 15 cities this year and we’ll be up to at least 18 cities next year and 21 in the third year,” said Beijing-based Mark Fischer, managing director of the NBA in China. “We got into China’s national school system as never before through this program.” (See also Mr. Fischer's comments in the AdAgeChina special report, "Ad Age Roundtable: Part 2")

The competition overlapped with the NBA Jam Van, a traveling mobile marketing event that engaged consumers with a street-style basketball court, a video game arcade, a world map of international players and a state-of-the-art video wall featuring NBA action. The 11-city, four-month tour, which debuted last July in Shanghai, also included appearances from the Houston Rockets Power Dancers and Boomer, the Indiana Pacers mascot. The tour was managed by Publicis Groupe’s Relay division and reached over one million Chinese.

“We made about 15 to 20 stops in each city. Next year, we’ll take it to 15 to 20 cities, going farther west and deeper into the provinces, to take advantage of our strengths outside the big cities, as well as in the cities themselves,” said Mr. Fischer, who joined the NBA in March 1997 and has led its operations in China since late 2002.

The NBA also partnered with Coca-Cola for the third time, for an annual touring NBA Jam Session that visited Chongqing, Shanghai and Dalian in 2005. That interactive festival reached over 100,000 people this year.

Even before the events took place, basketball had made strong inroads in China, the homeland of Houston Rockets star Yao Ming, a global celebrity. According to TNSSport, a global sports research company, 85% of mainland Chinese are NBA fans and basketball is the favorite sport among Chinese youth. Six of the top ten favorite athletes in China are NBA players. A survey by Aegis Group’s Synovate research arm found that 20-29 year-old Chinese viewers like to watch the NBA more than any other sports league. During the 2004-05 NBA season, a total of 280 games were televised in China, with a cumulative audience over one billion people.

“Basketball is one of the biggest sports categories in China and the NBA is a symbol of basketball, so [working with them] helps us improve our image by associating our brand with the sport,” said Abel Wu, Beijing-based marketing director of Li-Ning, a Chinese sportswear brand with global aspirations. Although Reebok is the NBA’s official sportswear partner globally, Li-Ning signed a multiyear strategic marketing agreement with the association earlier this year. The deal allows Li-Ning to feature some NBA players in its advertising and use the league’s marketing and media assets in China.

The sport’s traction with young consumers has attracted other marketers to partner with the NBA in cobranded retail and packaging promotions, event sponsorship, and customized media programming. China Mobile has signed on as the NBA’s official telecom service provider in China, for example, and Red Bull is the official sports/energy drink. In addition to supporting Jam Van, Nokia expanded its relationship with the NBA in the U.S. into Greater China to make video content available on mobile phones. Marketing partners for the NBA China Games have included Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Disneyland, Kodak and McDonald’s.

China is also a large retail market for the NBA. More than 150 NBA/Reebok outlets throughout China sell NBA apparel, athletic footwear and accessories. Last month, the association's products went on sale at 24 Carrefour stores in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Qingdao and Shenzhen. A Chinese version of the NBA's Hoop magazine, called NBA Shi Kong (NBA Space & Time), launched in May 1999 and has a circulation above 100,000.

Mr. Fischer declined to disclose the NBA's China revenue. "Our business grew by 50% in the past year, during which we doubled our staff size and the number of our marketing partners, and almost doubled the number of TV partners in China," he said. "We can’t sustain that rate of growth forever, but the NBA, now near the beginning of its 2005/2006 season and fiscal year, is expecting another year of solid growth.”
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