American Sports’ Battle for China

American Sports’ Battle for China

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being one of the first 200 to sign up at Twenty years ago, the western world didn’t
really think of China as a market. The country was an asset for the west’s
own market, sure, but only for the reason that it was a large, poor country that could
act as a source of low-cost labor. Today, though, with an economy ten times larger
that that of just twenty years ago, the western world, or at least the properly informed western
world, no longer thinks of Chi na as that poor, low-cost labor asset, but rather as
a significant, attractive market itself. Whereas in the past China made for the west,
today China is the very market that the western world focuses their attention on. With a rapidly growing middle and upper class,
businesses around the world have flooded in to cater to China’s newly wealthy in the
same way that they have long served the rich in the wealthy western world. Industries ranging from hospitality, to tourism,
to e-commerce, to beauty, and more are all thriving there with both home-grown and foreign-born
players establishing their spots in the Chinese market, but one enormous industry that is
still emerging and evolving in the Middle Kingdom is that of sports. Sports is a monstrous global industry, but
nowhere is that industry more enormous than in the US. The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL represent the first,
second, fourth, and six most valuable sports leagues in the world and collectively bring
in more than $30 billion in annual revenue. However, American sports are not purely an
American industry. Between merchandizing, league partnerships,
TV and streaming rights, and other revenue streams, American sports leagues actually
earn a considerable amount of money outside of America. China is a market worth targeting for any
business, but it has a particular appeal for sports leagues. Beyond its status as a large and relatively
recently wealthy nation, China has a government willing and interested in investing in foreign
sports—the kind of foreign sports that would earn them prestige in international competitions. Each of the four major American sports leagues
are the dominant leagues in the world for their respective sports, so any interest in
each sport will lead to interest in the league. Consequentially, each league has its own strategy
to grow Chinese interest both in their sport and their league. Baseball is incredibly popular in nearby Taiwan,
South Korea, and Japan, and so there was reason to believe that the sport could too become
popular in China. Despite this, though, Major League Baseball
has demonstrated the least interest in the market and the market has demonstrated the
least interest in the MLB. The league’s most tangible effort to attract
Chinese audiences took place back in 2008 when two pre-season games between the Padres
and Dodgers were played in Beijing. Since then, the history of baseball in China
has been fraught with difficulties with their national league, which operated in cooperation
with the American MLB, suspending operations in 2012, restarting in 2014, suspending operations
again in 2016, then starting up again in 2019 with just four teams. The MLB has also long-operated three, “development
centers,” where top Chinese baseball players are trained, although, none of the players
from these centers have ever actually seen action in the MLB itself. One can find press release upon press release
about different renewed efforts by the MLB to grow the sport in China, however, all signs
indicate that these have not resulted in much. Evidence of this can be seen on the league’s
official Weibo account—one of the top social networks in China—which has only 650,000
followers. The story is not markedly different with the
NHL, but the history of its efforts is shorter. It put on exhibition matches between the Kings
and Canucks in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017, then between the Bruins and Flames in Beijing
and Shenzhen in 2018. These games were generally well received and
were attended by healthy-sized audiences, but there was a conspicuous lack of follow-up,
with no 2019 games in China, reportedly due to issues with booking arenas. Since then, though, they’ve doubled-down,
sending Stanley Cup Champion Alex Ovechkin to the country in summer 2019 to promote the
sport, opening an office in Beijing, and hiring a China marketing head. Unfortunately for them, though, the little
attention China pays to Hockey is not primarily directed to the NHL. The second most lucrative Hockey league in
the world, the Kontinental Hockey League, added a Chinese team in 2016—the HC Kunlun
Red Star. This team is no phenomenon yet, with the lowest
average game attendance in the league, but it does mean that a Chinese hockey fan would
much more likely pay attention to the KHL over the NHL. Still, though, the NHL seems to get somewhat
more respectable Chinese engagement—demonstrated by their just over 1 million fans on Weibo. American football, though, is where it starts
to get interesting. The NFL has generated a real fanbase among
Chinese—not a large one, but it certainly exists. This is despite the fact that they are the
only of the four leagues that has not played a game in China. There is talk of putting one on in the country
at the start of the 2020 season, although, there has been talk before without result. The real potential for the NFL, though, comes
not through in-country games, but rather, through digital distribution. Each week, Tencent’s streaming platforms
broadcast a number of games, which each have an average viewership of more than two million
people. That’s despite the awkward broadcast times
in the mid-morning, given the time difference. How much the NFL was paid for these broadcast
rights is not publicly known, but with those kind of numbers, it’s certainly not nothing. Beyond the league as a whole’s efforts,
the New England patriots have put a particular level of effort into attracting Chinese fans. A huge benefit for them is that their star,
Tom Brady, has been learning and speaks a rudimentary level of Mandarin. He hosted a Chinese-language show for the
team’s digital channels which attracted sizable attention—over 15 million total
views. Meanwhile, playing the sport itself is increasingly
popular in China. Having one’s children learn the American
sport has emerged as a status symbol, and 120,000 young Chinese have gone to private
training camps for American football. Still, though, the NFL has a long way to go
to make China a sizable portion of its business. On Weibo, for example, it has only attracted
slightly more fans than the NHL, at 1.3 million. The final of these four leagues, though, has
turned China into a sizable and now crucial bit of its business. Basketball has been played casually in China
since the late 1800s when American missionaries first introduced the sport. As China liberalized in the latter half of
the 20th century, the NBA capitalized on this and then-commissioner David Stern led an effort
to get their games televised in China. This attracted a moderate fanbase, but the
true, pivotal moment happened in 2002. In that year, a young player from the Shanghai
Sharks entered the NBA draft and was picked first overall—Yao Ming. He quickly became a sensation and reached
the NBA All-Star team eight times, but as much as he was a sensation in the US, he was
just as much or more back home in China. The number of Chinese NBA fans grew exponentially
with every game he played, but eventually, after a series of injury-plagued seasons,
Ming retired in 2011. At the time, anyone would have assumed that
this would have been the end of the NBA’s rise in China, but as it turned out, this
was not the case. While at first Chinese fans may have tuned
in to watch Yao Ming, eventually they just tuned in to watch the NBA. In the decade following Ming’s retirement,
China grew into an enormous, crucial part of the NBA’s business, representing more
than $500 million a year in revenue. However, in October 2019, this was all threatened
by one tweet containing one image. It read, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with
Hong Kong.” This was, of course, a reference in support
of the widespread protests in Hong Kong, protests commonly characterized as anti-Beijing, but
what’s more important is who this tweet was by—Daryl Morey, the general manager
of the Houston Rockets. All of a sudden, deals fell apart, relationships
were severed, game broadcasts were cancelled—the NBA’s China market was under threat due
to a perception that the league was anti-China. Unsurprisingly, for business reasons, the
NBA quickly issued what was essentially an apology for this tweet. Of course, following that, the NBA both faced
criticism from China, for the original tweet, and from the US, for apologizing for that
tweet. Eventually, the scandal largely blew over
and relationships started to inch back to normal, but this was all indicative of a bigger
issue with American sports’ expansion into China. What these leagues are doing is selling one
product to two very different markets. Worldwide, the entertainment industry, of
which sports is a part of, has become increasingly homogenized with more and more people watching
the same TV shows, listening to the same music, and going to the same movies no matter which
country or culture they come from. China, meanwhile, is different. Chinese people largely watch different TV
shows, listen to different music, and go to different movies than the rest of us. A lot of this is because of government censorship
and import policy. For example, there’s a quota allowing only
a small number of foreign films into Chinese cinemas each year. Sports, though, can’t be treated like the
rest of entertainment. The sports entertainment experience in the
21st century stretches far beyond just the viewing of actual games. In fact, watching the games in their entirety
is hardly even a requirement anymore. Sports is an all-encompassing, unscripted,
uncensored entertainment experience, and this is the problem for China. It can’t just edit out an unflattering aspect
of sports in the same way it can with foreign films. Sports and politics in the US are intrinsically
intertwined. Many athletes naturally take their place as
political activists given their influence, but this is very different from in China. In China, sports is a game where athletes
go and play, someone wins, and then everyone goes home. That’s because, in China, entertainment
and politics stay far, far away from each other, or perhaps more accurately, entertainment
and opposition politics stay far, far away from each other. American sports will continue their march
towards increased relevancy in China as it, as a country, has an undersaturated spectator
sports market. Meanwhile, though, if these leagues become
a true phenomenon in China, they’ll have to make more tough calls as to whether they
want to be a sport league for the US, or for the world. In my opinion, the behind-the-scenes of sports
is fascinating. If you agree, but feel you’ve gotten enough
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and you can learn all of this on Brilliant. These are just some of the interesting, engaging
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100 thoughts on “American Sports’ Battle for China

  1. Basketball is totally the way to go. One week after the Tienanmen Square Massacre, I was in Tienanmen Square playing basketball with PLA soldiers. Little did I know at the time that I was playing through the remnants of the pulverized bodies of democracy activists rolled over by tanks again and again then causally and callously swept into sewers. Today I'm in Taiwan fighting to preserve democracy. Basketball is not that great for your knees and ankles. Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong. Fuck China.

  2. no such thing as statusx or not about it or influenx or not, cepitx, any be perfx, influenx any nmw, ccp is not china, china is not like that

  3. I am quite sure that football (not "handegg") Spanish La Liga have more, more following in China than MLB, NHL or NFL. After all, some of the teams have Chinese sponsors, Chinese owners and even Chinese players.

  4. China has the thinnest skin in the world. What has been criticized were actions, not people, not nations, not culture. There's no such a thing as "anti-China" movement. Winnie the Pooh is paranoic.

  5. Truth is nobody gives a sh*t about american sports outside north america. Maybe you don´t realize it, but the rest of the world, specially China, don't want to be "American".. that's why so many commercial endeavors fail in Asia.

  6. It's quite a strange thing that China has about 1.3B people but their Football, baseball, and basketball etc. is worse then Europe, and the States. Why there isn't Leo or LeBron James in 1.3B?

    Even Egypt has Salah, and 50M country S.Korea has Son

  7. But does anybody know if the crab Rangoon's in China are anything like what we get in the United States (Chinatown in Boston specifically)?

  8. The funny part of the China discussion is seeing people demonstrate their total lack of ethics in plain sight. When Lebron says "i dont get involved in politics" and throwing people under the bus to save his own market share, while at the same time actively getting involved in political discourse, is somewhat laughable.
    Even worse, Mezut Özil spreading awareness about the persecution of muslims in China, and seeing his team completely distance themselves from him because "it hurts chinese fans feelings" is insanely disrespectful. China is easily the most powerful nation on earth right now and somehow is so insecure it will do everything to supress any dissenting opinion even abroad it's ridiculous.

  9. While it is by no means incorrect or bad, why is 中国 included in this video? To appeal to Chinese? To appease the CCP?

  10. 10:47 you've just equated "becoming a sports league for the world" to becoming a sports league that the CCP will allow to be shown w/in its borders…. Fail.

  11. Exhibition Games aren't going to cut it.
    The AFL model is the way to follow in their near complete supremacy in Australian sports. Fund school programs, build facilities….. then back it up with real time exhibition games. Mass uptake in any sport isn't going to happen unless they have a pathway to compete. That's why basketball and football in China works. Every Chinese high school has a basketball court and football playing surface. Tennis has a huge opportunity it hasn't banked yet due to the residual love of racquet sport in China (badminton and table tennis).

  12. Probably worth mentioning that the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is a Eurasian league with 19 Russian teams, 1 Finnish, 1 Latvian, and 1 Kazakh, in addition to the Chinese team – for those not familiar 🙂

  13. Chinese soccer can never bring prestige to the country, yet it is the one of the most important sports in China, simply because it is very accessible and has a huge presence in our daily live. When I was a small kid, even a ball made from crumbled papers and a few water bottles marking the goals could make a game. Same for basketball. As schools in cities get less and less space nowadays, there are simply more basketball courts than soccer courts.

  14. I have contempt for any government that opposes democracy. That includes the one-party state China and the two-party state America. We need a similar push that Western Europe had towards democratic socialism.

  15. What the NBA should do is put teams in China with players from America and the rest of the world, and just not have them play the North American teams. Start with like 8 teams in China and see how it goes.

  16. So there has been a lot of talk how an NFL team in London wouldn't work logistically, but the KHL and Super Rugby have cross-continental games. I would like to see a video about how logistics works in those leagues

  17. We all know the whole US is basically anti China, because there simply cannot be two super powers co exist in the world. How about not involving politics whenever you feel like so? This guy Morey had NEVER posted anything political, and yet the only tweet he made is right before he is planning to enter politics. There is far more to it than simply "standing for Hong Kong". This tweet has legit hit hard for Chinese fans, who have been simply enjoying the sport. Western media will tell you it is the evil government who's trying to censor NBA, but in fact the most furious and disappointed have been the long-supportive fans (especially Rocket fans, since Yao was there the whole career) suddenly learning that there is still political rivalry everywhere. What's happening in Hong Kong has already long turned into a collection of violent crimes, and supporting them is basically supporting violent against China. You will probably laugh and say I'm lying, but only because I'm a Chinese. Westerner bias and ignorance (on this matter) at its best.

  18. The decision on the part of US-flagged corporations to regard China as a market, and not an adversary, was the moment we permanently ceded the mantle of world leadership. And it's way, way too late to do anything about it now — as the innocent women and children of Taiwan are about to find out.

  19. "for the US, or for the world" this entire video you went through the totalitarian oppression of Chinese people, by their own state, somehow in a totally neutral tone, and then you finish the video by labeling the desires of the CCP as the desires of the entire world. Get an editor.

  20. 7:30 Yao Ming, "Yao" is the surname (Eastern name order). So this sentence should be "Yao retired in 2011." BTW, "Ming" is a quite common given name in Chinese, just like "John" or "Bob" in English. I think there're probably millions of people using it.

  21. As always, Westerners make ignorant comments, thinking they have unique ideas. What you blame China today is exactly how your countries became developed countries. And your opinion which you think is unique, is just a repeater of media prejudice.

  22. Interesting, what could be said China gravitates towards sports with international presence. Those are soccer and basketball (somewhat). They were investing huge money, especially to soccer. Biggest soccer academy in the world in Guangzhou. The goal is to win a world cup in 20 years.
    Next important thing is time zones, because of this american sports leagues will remain kind of minority, beucase it just doesnt work with time. When there is primetime in US its 10:00 to 13:00 in China, it just doesnt work out for massive following. They have their own big leagues for soccer and basketball.

  23. Capitalism and corporatism are two separate things. Corporatism is what these companies do in order to make money while selling there souls.

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