Hollywood studios see their box office future in China, but the National Basketball Assn. has beat them there. The hoops-crazed country is the NBA's biggest overseas market. But the league is not resting, working to build on its popularity -- begun three decades ago -- with more content deals, merchandise pacts and even a lifestyle resort.
"We are having our strongest year ever," says David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China. "There is a huge appetite for sport in China and a lot of room for growth. Basketball is a global game, it's easy to play and to understand."
Some 300 million play the game in the basketball-mad nation, and hoops have been popular for many years in China -- it was brought by missionaries in the late 19th century -- but the game really took off when the 7-foot, 6-inch center Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002.
"Yao Ming was a transformational player who had enormous impact on and off the court," Shoemaker says.
The NBA's second Chinese New Year Celebration, which featured 23 live games televised and streamed to Chinese auds over eight days, reached 107 million fans on television and digital media last month, an increase of more than 11% compared to last year's first-ever celebration.
Last year, the NBA's Chinese website registered 3.3 billion page views; this year, that number rose by 34% to 4.5 billion page views, while during the 2012-13 regular season, total video streams for the NBA rose 169% over the 2011-12 season, from 1.2 billion to 3.2 billion.
Crucial to the NBA's success in China has been the way it has managed to access auds through the state broadcaster CCTV and other regional satellite stations. This is what sets it apart from other sports franchises.
CCTV produced a customized feed for all the NBA Finals games, which tipped off June 6 with action between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. CCTV produced commentary and graphics in Mandarin and also captured footage for its weekly two-hour lifestyle show NBA Primetime. China's Ningxia Satellite TV was among the seven television and radio partners to air the NBA Finals for the first time.
Fans were able to watch the Finals live online at Sina.com, which provided content and real-time fan interaction; the NBA has 58 million followers on the league's official Sina and Tencent microblog accounts.
China sent 51 journalists to cover the NBA Finals.
"It's been very important for the NBA since we started in the 1980s to make our games accessible to as broad an audience as possible," Shoemaker says. "This is our 26th year of partnership with CCTV, and there are around a dozen other broadcasters that show live NBA games too."
Shoemaker notes that the NBA's digital audiences are surging. "Whether on TV or PC or tablet â¦ we want to grow and build new platforms to connect with China fans," he says.
The NBA has used its star power to grow its Chinese initiatives. The Miami Heat -- with superstar LeBron James leading Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh -- and the Los Angeles Clippers -- with stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin -- played two preseason games in China in 2012. The Clippers and the Lakers (with the popular Kobe Bryant in tow) will play two preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai in October.
The league has capitalized on its popularity by establishing the Chinese Basketball Assn. Dongguan Basketball School and NBA Training Center for wannabe pros.
Chinese fans can live their dreams of training like Bryant or Yao at the NBA's "lifestyle destination" complex with an official basketball court, a hoop-themed restaurant and a designated zone for rugrat ballers. The $1.5 billion, 2,300-acre sports and entertainment superstructure is under construction on the outskirts of Beijing.
Since Yao retired in 2011, fans have embraced the Houston Rockets' Jeremy Lin, a Harvard-educated American point guard of Chinese (Taiwan) descent, as well as Bryant and James, who sold the the most jerseys this year.
"The new generation of fans is more sophisticated and diverse and are following all the teams the fans in the U.S. are following," Shoemaker says.