Alibaba is hoping to re-create March Madness in November. The Chinese online shopping giant is teaming up with top leagues in the National Collegiate Athletic Association to stream the first regular-season games played in the country online. Alibaba will exclusively carry the men's basketball games in China, starting with the showdown on Nov. 14 between the University of Washington Huskies and the University of Texas Longhorns.
The Huskies' Pac-12 Conference says the game against the Longhorns will be the first one played in China by any U.S. college or professional sports teams during a regular season. Exhibition games have taken place in the country before, but this one will count on the two teams' records. The sponsorship agreement with Alibaba was negotiated over six months, and organizers are expecting a significant turnout. The first game will be held in the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, which seats 18,000 people.
In addition to the Huskies-Longhorns game, a Pac-12 team will play at least one more regular-season contest in China during the 2016 season, which Alibaba will also stream through its mobile apps and website. The matchup hasn't been determined yet, according to a joint statement from the Pac-12 and Alibaba. The world's most populous country is an attractive and potentially lucrative sports market. In February, the Pac-12 said it was working with Chinese online video company LeTV to stream 27 men’s basketball games in China this season. The National Basketball Association routinely plays preseason games in China to drum up interest in pro basketball there, including two scheduled for October.
Outreach in China could have academic benefits, too. Almost 275,000 Chinese students attended American universities during the 2013-14 academic year, a 75 percent jump from 2010, according to a November report by the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit. That makes them the largest contingent of foreign students in the U.S., the report says. “This is a great opportunity for these students to participate in true cultural exchange through college sports,” says Larry Scott, the Pac-12's commissioner.
Alibaba, which sells sports apparel and memorabilia through its websites along with millions of other things, has grander ambitions. “This partnership is about so much more than a basketball game,” says Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for Alibaba. “As these student athletes complete their education and enter the global economy, China-U.S. relations will be central to the future of the world in which they live.”
The first China game will take place during a busy week for Alibaba. Singles' Day, a local shopping holiday that's become the world's biggest day for online sales, is Nov. 11. Before the game, students from both basketball teams will visit Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou for a daylong educational program about the country's e-commerce industry, consumer buying habits, and other topics. And you thought economics class was bad?