Basketball-Crazy China Sees Opportunity in NBA Lockout: Adam Minter
How is China, the world’s largest basketball-loving nation, taking to the National Basketball Association’s ongoing labor strife and the increasingly likely prospect that the 2011–2012 season will be cancelled? Not well.
On Oct. 24, Guan Weijia, vice-director of the basketball department at Titan Sports, China’s leading sports newspaper, wrote a column about the player lockout in the Beijing News titled, “Everybody is a demon.” In it, he said that NBA Commissioner David Stern was “the demon of all demons and he is Satan who is the King of demons in this labor dispute.” Guan was not much kinder to Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBA Player’s Union, and his role in the fruitless negotiations:
He is the spokesman of the employees, but he can't work out a shrewd strategy … [he] has already prepared for surrender and the purpose of his of existence is to be played and "slaughtered" by Stern.
The Beijing News, a newspaper once known for its independence and bold reporting, was recently placed under the control of Beijing’s propaganda authorities. Arguably this editorial met with their approval.
The NBA shouldn’t be surprised by the passion or the invective of Chinese commentators. After all, the league has spent years successfully cultivating its brand in China and, with the essential help of former NBA player Yao Ming, it has become one of the most popular professional sports leagues in what is quickly becoming one of the world’s most profitable sports markets.
A few years ago, NBA games featuring Yao attracted audiences equal in size to the entire population of Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest nation. The league, its games and its players are consistently among the most popular topics on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblog. The NBA's official Sina Weibo account attracts 8.1 million followers. (In contrast, the NBA’s official, U.S.-based Twitter account attracts 3 million followers). And as celebrities in China go, few are bigger than NBA superstars -- especially Kobe Bryant who, on his own, can attract huge, devoted crowds in China even for appearances with no basketballs in sight.
Despite this considerable passion, the NBA has not yet explained to its Chinese fan base its side of the bitter labor dispute. Instead, it has seemingly decided that the best approach is to keep silent -– at least, in Chinese.
Compare, for example, the homepage of NBA.com, which caters to an English-speaking audience, to the homepage of NBA.China.com, the league’s official Chinese-language site. The top of the English-language homepage is dominated by fair-minded news headlines related to the labor lockout, such as "SI.com: League turns talks into disgrace" and "League’s ultimatums bring labor talks to a screeching halt." The NBA’s English-language site also includes a prominent link to a separate web page called, “Labor Central -- Collective Bargaining News & Information.” It is a page written and produced by the NBA, which features in-depth, explanatory content on the four-month-old lockout such as "Collective Bargaining Agreement [CBA] Basics" and "Collective Barganing Agreement 101."
Curiously, the Chinese NBA site lacks a separate news and information page on the lockout and Chinese-language translations of “Collective Bargaining 101” and “Collective Bargaining Basics.” Rather, the site focuses on the history of the NBA, including "classic moments" from the 1962 and 1986 all-star games.
Could the NBA be afraid that a too public acknowledgment of American collective bargaining rights -– even as practiced by millionaires and billionaires -– would unnerve the same authorities who recently, quietly, stifled coverage and online discussions of Occupy Wall Street? Or perhaps NBA market research suggests that Chinese fans really do prefer features on 40-year-old all-star games to news about when Kobe Bryant may return to an NBA court? (Note: The NBA declined to comment about its websites and public relations strategy for this column).
To find any Chinese-language evidence that the NBA has locked its players out of the gyms, Chinese fans must click on the news tab on the NBA China site, and then scroll through news releases to find an Oct. 11 story headlined, “NBA announces the cancellation of two weeks of regular season games.” It is, perhaps, a cagey move on the part of the NBA's leadership, which must know that Chinese news consumers, who are raised on a diet of state-generated news, are keenly attuned to institutional bias.
There is by no means a news blackout on the NBA lockout in China. State media and independent outlets alike have covered the story, including the wildly popular NBA channel at Sina.com, China’s most popular Web portal and home to the Sina Weibo microblog. Its news section includes U.S. information on the strike, as well as home-grown editorials so sympathetic to the NBA that they wouldn't be objectionable to the league’s masters in New York –- or to the powers-that-be in Beijing. For example, a characteristically unsigned Sina.com editorial on Oct. 26 concluded that a new collective bargaining agreement should favor the owners. It said: “Since the players are no longer loyal, then the owners, of course, need to use the system to ensure loyalty.”
On the Sina Weibo microblog, the vast majority of Chinese basketball fans seem to be more interested in the game than the labor negotiations. But the NBA shouldn’t take solace from this: Chinese basketball fans are also enthralled with the possibility that NBA players are defecting to the cash-flush, government-ran Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA.
J.R. Smith, a former Denver Nuggets swingman, recently signed with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, which has caused many Chinese fans to celebrate this unintended "foreign aid" to the Chinese league. One Chinese basketball fan on Sina Weibo wrote: “The CBA is worth watching this year, because of the NBA labor problems and the possibility that the NBA will be cancelled indefinitely.”
Still, there’s an undercurrent of concern, and perhaps gloating, that the NBA is permanently damaging its prospects in China among sports journalists, editorialists and media executives. A strident editorial on VOC.com, a Web portal owned by the Hunan Daily Group, one of south China’s largest newspaper conglomerates, put the problem in culturally specific terms for its readers:
There is a Chinese saying that goes like "one ant hole may cause the cause the collapse of a thousand-li dike," [1 li = 400 feet] which is used to suggest that one's carelessness on tiny things may lead to great disaster … Maybe the NBA, the world’s most influential professional basketball league, is facing such a dilemma and crisis at present.
Nonetheless, based upon what’s being written on China’s microblogs, it appears that the NBA has much less reason to fear the anger of Chinese fans than their ambivalence. The CBA, with its ample resources to pick off NBA players and its friendlier time zone (since live NBA games are broadcast in the morning in China) is nicely positioned to capture the attention of China’s neglected NBA fans.
“Someone asked me why I haven't offered an update on the labor negotiations,” wrote Li Shuangfu, a Miami-based basketball correspondent for Sina.com, this week. “To tell you the truth, I'm getting bored with them! … We all have something more important to do, right?”
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Adam Minter at email@example.com