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 US, each Finals game averaged 20.4 million viewers, and an additional 430,000 live-streamers.
This love affair has been more than a century in the making. Basketball was introduced into China by foreign missionaries shortly after its late 19th century invention. The game grew among their students, including early members of the Communist Party. Even during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution, when anything viewed as “Western” was targeted for destruction, basketball prospered in Chinese cities.
When China finally opened up in the late 1970s, the Washington Bullets (today, the Wizards), became the first US professional sports team to visit. In 1987, China’s state-run CCTV network began broadcasting NBA highlights. The timing was auspicious: The highlight-reel, Michael Jordan era was just beginning.
The broadcasts caught on and have been growing -- with a few interruptions -- ever since. In 2015, the NBA signed a five-year deal worth a reported $700 million with Tencent Holdings Ltd. for just the Chinese digital streaming rights to its games. By contrast, a three-year deal for the Chinese television rights to the English Premier League cost $650 million in 2016.
Several factors fuel basketball’s current popularity -- and should continue to do so. The first is geography. Over the last 30 years, China has been transformed from an agrarian to an urban society. During a real-estate boom, soccer fields are a luxury which few cities or developers are willing to indulge. Basketball courts are another matter, and today most new urban parks in China have a court or two, enjoyed by an estimated 300 million amateurs who then go home and watch the NBA, attend NBA clinics and interact with NBA players during their regular visits to the country (Kobe Bryant makes annual trips).
While increasingly popular among Chinese students, soccer doesn’t enjoy that kind of participatory fanbase. At the same time, the sport suffers in China from its association with corruption and incompetence. In just the last seven years, a series of anti-corruption investigations has led to the jailing of two former directors of the national league, several players from China’s only team ever to reach the World Cup and several referees. One former player estimated that 30 percent of all matches were fixed prior to 2009, while a former boss of the National Football Association claimed that roster positions on the Chinese national team could be purchased for around $16,000.
If the national team managed to achieve national glory, that might be forgivable. Instead, it boasts a decadeslong record of stunning incompetence, including an ongoing inability to reach the World Cup. (It’s appeared only once, in 2002, when it failed to score.)
Though the national basketball team hasn’t won Olympic gold either, it’s generally held to be clean -- a respite from the corruption that still suffuses so much of Chinese society. And the NBA, with its small cast of elite international athletes, feeds the hunger of young Chinese for a meritocracy that recognizes talent and gives it space to express itself without recourse to connections and nepotism.
Of course, cultural factors alone can’t explain basketball’s growth in China. More so than soccer, basketball is suited to viewing in small, play-by-play chunks on subway commutes -- and the NBA has grown adept at producing such content for its local partners. Meanwhile, China’s fascination with wealth and celebrity is well-suited to the NBA’s relatively small number of flashy and outspoken superstars. Whatever the reasons, in the competition to dominate the world’s biggest sports market, the NBA seems headed for a blowout.
By Adam Minter
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.