The Chinese are fanatical in their love of basketball. The game has been a part of their culture for nearly as long as it’s been a part of ours, as surprising as that may sound. In fact, Piengiane, a Chinese government official who had seen the fledgling game being played in America, introduced it to China in 1896. This was the same year that Dr. James Naismith first hung his peach basket in a Massachusetts gym.
In the following century, the game of basketball took on entirely new dimensions as sports became a major industry across many leagues, including the NBA. The change was revolutionary.
In China, leaders like the PROC’s first Prime Minister, Chou En Lai, and Chairman Mao Zedon of the People’s Republic of China have used basketball as a way to improve youth fitness and promote teamwork. Today, the game continues to be supported by China’s highest officials.
Some of the best Chinese players in the NBA have had their start in the CBA, including Wang Zhizhi (Dallas Mavericks, LA Clippers, Miami Heat), Mengke Bateer (Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors), Yi Jianlian (Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Texas Legends). Of course, the greatest of the Chinese players, Yao Ming, previously played with the Houston Rockets for fourteen seasons (1997-2011). Previously, he played for the Shanghai Sharks. Yao’s CBA and NBA accomplishments are legendary.
Along the way, the Chinese have thrilled and cheered to the marvelous athleticism of American basketball legends like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant whose peerless feats astounded all of us and changed the game.
Chinese basketball has its own version of the NBA, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) Sports Company, Inc. It is the pre-eminent professional men’s basketball league in Asia. However, for Chinese basketball to continue to grow and attract new players and fans, the league needs continued improvement. To address that need, Yao Ming was unanimously elected president of the CBA. As president, he has been empowered by the ‘top brass’ of China’s central government to institute changes that will make the game more competitive. (source: China National Radio.)
Obstacles to a more competitive league include the fact that the CBA has intense rivalries but no conferences. Officiating is seen as inconsistent at best, corrupt at worst. There’s no free agency for Chinese players, who are bound to their clubs. And those clubs struggle to develop youth talent. When asked about where he sees challenges he’ll need to address, Yao Ming recently said “The question reminds me of the year 2004, when our first foreign coach of the national team, Del Harris, asked me the same question,” Yao said. “My answer then was, ‘There’s no biggest problem, because there are problems everywhere.’” Yao has been very busy instituting reforms in the way the CBA approaches both the game and the business of basketball.
The most attention-getting of Yao’s reform measures is the formation of two national teams, each with an independent coaching staff and roster, to alternately represent China at international events through 2018. The move aims to motivate coaches and players by creating competition between the two squads and involving as many young players as possible. Like in the United States, youth have many alternatives they can pursue. He recently said, “Basketball faces stiff competition from sectors such as electronics sports in attracting the young generation. That’s why we will encourage Chinese basketball to continue its cooperation with the education and entertainment sectors to create a platform where kids can enjoy learning different things simultaneously.” Another related challenge is that China is still in the early stages of creating a system to develop young players as they mature. In the United States, our young players benefit from school team participation, club teams, college teams with sharp-eyed recruiters and attractive athletic scholarships. A very small percentage ultimately make the NBA at the end of this long development cycle. About developing China’s version of this system, Yao Ming has said, “”Before we choose the road for development, we need to make sure what fits us most and what prerequisites we already have.” True to his culture, Yao Ming is proceeding slowly and methodically.
Professional basketball can be as big a business in China as it is in the United States, if not bigger. However, in various ways, the profit motive has been elusive. As with all other aspects of life in China, government officials installed by the Communist Party leadership oversee the sport. Yao has asked for changes so that more power is shared between the government officials and the team owners that have investments in their teams. As of this time, new changes in how the league runs will provide the owners more voting power on league decisions and more access to marketing deals. To orchestrate the privatizing of the CBA, Yao Ming will need to demonstrate the same acumen for team work and leadership that he so skillfully employed on the court. Of course, to invest more, team owners want similar earnings opportunities as their American counterparts have in the NBA. Under the previous system, CBA franchises were required to transfer sponsorship earnings to the league, who then take a cut and give millions to broadcaster Infront Sports & Media before dividing the remainder between the sides. Such a system left franchises with little to invest, and many had lobbied for a system like the NBA’s, which sees teams keep most of the sponsorship they earn.
To play at the same level as American athletes, the Chinese will need to continue to sharpen their ability to communicate with each other on the floor verbally and body-language-wise, and to acquire the same passion for the game. So far, these traits have been lacking. To improve in this area, Yao Ming has called on his relationships within the NBA. Foreign (American and European) coaches are participating in NBA sponsored leagues for hundreds of teams in Beijing and Shanghai under the Junior NBA brand. The goal is to get kids playing the game in environments that prioritize creativity and fun over training-focused activity. It’s not enough to master the drills that incorporate highest level skills. Chinese players should ‘feel the game’ the way American players do and they must be able to use the skills with the same finesse as American players do.
To help his CBA players learn to think and play more like NBA players, Yao Ming is encouraging the recruitment of American players. Playing on CBA teams is an excellent opportunity for older NBA players who are extending their careers as well as an opportunity for other players who have not made it to the NBA. To attract the best players in China as well as American players, the CBA is offering very attractive salaries. The minimum salary for a rookie in the NBA is $582,180 and in the CBA is $815,615.
Jimmer Fredette, who in his senior year with the Brigham Young Cougars literally attained ‘superstar status’, is a great example. In his senior year, Fredette was averaging almost 29 points per game, but once in the NBA only played at so-so levels and lasted only five seasons. Prior to the 2018 season, Yao recruited Fredette to the Shanhai Sharks to prove what can happen to the social fabric of a Chinese team when American players are added to the roster. As expected, Fredette changed the culture of the team, made it more American with high-fives, butt-slaps and laughs. The team responded, going 30-8 and making the playoffs, with Fredette leading the league at 37.6 points per game. Fans responded as well, leading to sellouts of Sharks games before the season ended in March with a first-round playoff loss. Fredette’s flair for scoring, and enthusiastic embrace of the local culture, sparked something powerful in China, where he soon was provided a shoe deal and his own commercial.
Yao Ming is also working to professionalize the game itself, in terms of the need for a standard set of rules. David Shoemaker, who just recently stepped down from his role as CEO of NBA China has commented on Yao’s efforts in this regard and said, “He wants rules that people understand — a draft for players, more movement [via free agency], rules around salaries and salary caps, things that he as an NBA player had exposure to and now has chance to impart on the league.”
Changing the CBA is going to be a challenging game for Yao to win. Its been reported that CBA owners pushed back on Yao’s first round of recommendations which included splitting the league into two conferences, increasing the number of games (CBA teams play just three months, plus playoffs) and restricting the court time of non-Chinese Asian players. Yao has also proposed ending the compulsory play on the national team in favor of the invitation model in place in the US. As it stands now, compulsory play means that the CBA game schedule is interrupted.
No stranger to on-court injuries, Yao Ming is approaching his new opportunity as though it’s still early in the first quarter. He’s’ going to play strategically and he’s going to give it his all. If what we have seen from Yao, the Houston Rocket’s Center, is any indication of what Yao, the President of the CBA, has ahead, he’s going to play this game to win.
Word4Asia is a Southern California-based consulting company helping organizations accomplish their objectives in China. We have over twenty years of experience and have put many wins on the board during that span. Founder and CEO, Gene Wood, is passionate about helping clients as well as being an avid basketball fan who can be regularly seen courtside watching his beloved LA Clippers. If your organization has aspirations in China, or even if you’d just like to talk ‘hoops’, Gene hopes you’ll reach out. He can be contacted at email@example.com