The tone that Yao set, and continues to help mold in his role as the head of the CBL, has only grown since Thibodeau started making the trek back and forth to China. The popularity of the game has increased even more within the country, as evidenced by the reception the Golden State Warriors received during their weeklong visit through Shenzhen and Shanghai during the NBA’s Global Games against the Timberwolves last week. Warriors players were greeted by throngs of screaming fans any time they would leave their hotel. Young fans chased after NBA commissioner Adam Silver in search of a picture or an autograph as he shuffled his way through Shanghai toward another meeting, in search of a picture or an autograph. Basketball is the No. 1 team sport in China, with 300 million people playing the game, according to Yao’s CBA.
While the popularity of the league appears to be reaching larger levels within the States, the engagement with the Chinese audience is higher than ever for a sport that continues to grow more each year worldwide. More than 750 million people watched NBA programming on TV in China last season, according to the league, and the NBA has over 136 million followers on social media in China, the most followed sports league in the country.
“I think it’s very meaningful for us to play games here, even though it’s a very small part of our business,” Silver said. “Increasingly this is a media business, and no different than in the United States, where only a very small portion of our fans ever get to step foot in an NBA arena and see NBA players and a game in person. But at the same time, I think being here, as our teams have been in the country for essentially a week, it’s an opportunity not just to play two games but to work on NBA Cares projects, to work throughout the communities, to participate in clinics.” “It also gives our players a much better sense of what China is all about. They also, in addition to their basketball activities, get to see the sights. They walk on the streets and eat in the restaurants and shop. For such an important market for the NBA, it really gives our players and our teams a much better feel of this country. While the main growth in the business is going to come through media, I still think it’s very important that we have a presence here and that we continue to play games every season.”
The NBA knows it’s not ideal to fly two of its teams thousands of miles away in the middle of training camp, but there’s a reason Silver was steadfast in saying that the league would continue bringing games back to China when the opportunity arises. There’s a lot of money to be made when a league can carve out a niche within an audience of 1.3 billion. With the NBA riding the high that comes with record-setting television deals with ESPN and Turner in the U.S., it’s banking on the assumption that more growth within China will have an even larger impact on the bottom line over time. That’s why the league opened three NBA Academies in the country last year and is on track to open its first NBA Basketball School there in 2019. Asian media power Tencent, who has a partnership with ESPN, launched NBA League Pass in China for the first time last season.
The Warriors have become used to this rock-star treatment. For Warriors forward Draymond Green, though, he just experienced a new wave of support that left him taken back. In what has become a familiar routine, Green signed an autograph for a fan before Sunday’s win against Minnesota at Mercedes-Benz Arena. In what became an unexpected reaction, Green saw the fan crying. “It caught me off guard,” Green said, shaking his head. “I just didn’t expect that. To see what you mean to someone else and how you can make an impact, it’s special. It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted. I appreciate the love and support.”