When the Minnesota Timberwolves tip off in a sold-out game against the Golden State Warriors in Shenzhen next Thursday, the most popular jersey worn into the stadium won't belong to Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns or even Yao Ming; it'll be Kobe Bryant's. The players shouldn't be miffed, however. The enthusiasm for Bryant -- still the most popular athlete in China, despite his recent retirement -- is evidence of something that's rarely acknowledged: Basketball, not the soccer so loved by Chinese President Xi Jinping, is China's real sport.
Under Xi, the government has poured money into investments designed to transform China into a soccer superpower on par with Brazil. Yet the National Basketball Association remains by far China's most popular sports league. According to one recent study that measured online engagement, the NBA is six times more popular in China than the three largest European soccer leagues combined. During the 2017 NBA Finals, more than 190 million Chinese streamed the games on their mobile devices. By contrast, in the U.S., each Finals game averaged 20.4 million viewers, and an additional 430,000 live-streamers.