Why the NBA's China Bet Is Failing
Here’s a take. I believe that the NBA-China relationship is headed for divorce, and it’s the equivalent of an election whose early returns presage a result long before the counting finishes. Sure, the NBA will try to keep the lucrative arrangement, wishing it back like Homer Simpson after a runaway BBQ pig.
The reason is simple and only tangentially related to events like Boston Celtics reserve big man Enes Kanter’s harsh criticism of the Far Eastern superpower and said superpower’s utter inability to shrug off criticism even from journeymen centers. It’s something that, for whatever reason, rarely gets mentioned in media coverage of the NBA’s fraught relationship with the 1.4 billion-person nation: In recent years, China has been really bad at basketball.
If you think that’s too harsh, I’m talking in relative terms and certainly as compared to past expectations. Obviously there are Chinese citizens who are good at basketball. For example, Fanbo Zeng of the G League Ignite team hopes to make the NBA. If the 18-year-old pulls it off, he will likely be the lone Chinese player in the league, though.
That’s rather incredible considering a) the size of China’s population, b) the high level of enthusiasm for the sport within China and c) the immense investment from Chinese authorities and the NBA to foster high-level basketball talent.
The NBA built academies in Shandong, Xinjiang and Zhejiang to incubate pro level talent. Before that, the NBA partnered with China's Ministry of Education and promoted programs for kids like the Jr. NBA, to say nothing of all the other marketing the league transmits to the Chinese people. From the Score, on the vast project:
In 2011, the NBA partnered with the CBA to launch a world-class basketball academy in China, with on-site dormitories and NBA-approved training classes. NBA China has also worked with the Chinese Ministry of Education in 500 schools across 10 provinces to provide training to physical education teachers to teach basketball.
When you add up all the efforts, it’s a pretty staggering human capital failure. So much money, so many resources and, well, nothing. There’s a Finnish player in the NBA, but no player from China. There’s a St. Lucian player in the NBA, but no player from China. There are two players from Japan in the NBA, but not a single player from China. Ever since Yao Ming emerged, there’s no nation the NBA has been more obsessed with extracting talent from and perhaps no major nation that’s given the league less. It’s the Big Dig without Boston eventually getting an underground highway. I’d opine that it’s also the Big Dig without much media criticism of the failure as well.
A Sunday of compelled calm, forced by a power outage and a broken phone, allowed me to delve into Operation Yao Ming by Brook Larmer, a comprehensive look at China’s entry into the NBA. The book, released back in 2005, reveals a lot about that moment’s recent past, and says much about the mentality that informed China’s opening up to basketball. Then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s obsession with sport as an advertisement of prestige had China showing itself off to the world in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, its first participation in the games in over three decades. So eager was Deng’s China to participate that it did so despite a boycott by the Soviet Union, a major informal ally. From that point forward, China’s leaders have been obsessed with winning medals.
From Operation Yao Ming:
Deng’s ambition was to build an athletic powerhouse that commanded awe and admiration abroad, and deep feelings of national pride at home. The era of Mao’s “Friendship First” made way for Deng’s glory-seeking “Gold Medal Strategy.”
“To win friends we must first of all win gold medals,” read a 1980 editorial in a state-run newspaper, encapsulating the new thinking in Beijing. “If we merely take part in competitions and are incapable of obtaining brilliant results, then the dignity of our country and our people will be adversely affected.”
China’s men’s basketball team did not garner a medal at the 1984 Olympics, but it did win a game over France, and the women’s team actually took home the bronze. Not bad for a country that hadn’t really tried its hand at the sport on this level. This was something to build on, at the very least.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Chinese men’s basketball team did not even make the last Olympics. That’s a bad result, but perhaps missing the cut was a better outcome than what had happened two years prior. At the 2019 FIBA World Cup, which China hosted and thus automatically qualified for, it failed to advance despite highly favorable placement into a comically easy bracket. Losses to powerhouses like Poland and Venezuela doomed the hoops-obsessed superpower. Basically, FIBA allowed China to bowl within bumpers and the Middle Kingdom still somehow managed to roll a gutter ball.
This all happened after Adam Silver’s 2017 lament at the NBA Finals on the lack of NBA players from China:
It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now. There's probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more basketball is being watched, more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world. And it's something I talked to Yao Ming a lot about, and I think ultimately that we all collectively have to do a better job training the best players in China.
I was in the room for that Silver spiel, and I recall thinking a) how everyone there considered such a statement to be normal and b) how it was perhaps a good insight into the league’s recent struggles to connect domestically, in the United States. Here was Adam Silver, an American and head of the National Basketball Association, telling the audience that his league must do better in filling its ranks with players not just from abroad, but specifically from a global adversary. Silver would go on to tell the American reporters the following:
One of the things that we have worked with Yao on and are now creating are academies in China. So we can bring together some of the best players at a young age, they can compete against each other, they can compete internationally in the summer, because ultimately that's what enables them to become NBA players, become the greatest players, by competing against topnotch competition. I've made this point before, and Yao has made it to me, that when you look at Lithuania, when you look at Serbia, when you look at Latvia, countries that have populations of less than 10 million, and all three of those countries with several NBA players, how can it be that a country of 1.3 billion people where there's an enormous amount of basketball being played has no NBA players right now? So we think it's something we need to focus on.
Perhaps if NBA boardrooms had contained a person of a politically incorrect bent, maybe a reader of David Epstein, someone might have mused about this possibility before the NBA squandered so many resources. Maybe it happened, but the NBA ultimately decided that greed-fueled effort would win out and bring forth a generation of Yaos. No such luck.
In contrast to China’s struggles, it seems like the tall, 20 million-person region comprising former Yugoslavia can produce NBA stars without really trying. Serbian Nikola Jokić and Slovenian Luka Dončić, reigning and probable future MVPs, respectively, can dominate even while out of shape. “Flabby savants from the Balkans” was not what Nike had in mind when it cut expensive ads depicting the rise of a Chinese superstar, but yet here we are. The NBA had these grand visions of superstars hailing from huge markets, only to be rewarded with MVPs originating out of tiny Eastern European nations. It’s like a Faustian prank from a mischievous genie: “You wished for your game to go global; here’s your piece of Slovenia, Serbia and Greece!”
It was all so different a little over a decade ago, when there was a real sense of an imminent, deepening Chinese NBA imprint. In 2008 and 2009, I worked for the NBA while living in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, within the borough’s Chinatown. Absent a real social life, I ambled into a random bar one weekday evening and was shocked to find it absolutely packed. It was quite noisy and everyone’s attention was on one thing: a Houston Rockets game. When the game action started, it prompted a lot of shouting in Cantonese, and suddenly the whole experience felt dreamlike. I’d found familiarity in wholly unfamiliar packaging, whereas so many others in the bar had found a touchstone in a new home. Vast oceans had been bridged.
No, the denizens of Sunset Park were not gathered to watch Shane Battier's analytical style of play. They were crammed in cheek by jowl to see Yao Ming in what turned out to be, in retrospect, his last real NBA season. Yao wasn’t the only Chinese NBA player to have an imprint on Sunset Park, though. Yi Jianlian of the then-New Jersey Nets was on many a poster in the neighborhood. I can only imagine what the scene was like a few years later, when Jeremy Lin (now with the Beijing Ducks) took New York City by storm.
I mention this to remind of a time when China had an impact on the NBA beyond situations like the recent Enes Kanter imbroglio. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing had brought high-status American NBA players before adoring fans, in person. The U.S.-China Olympic basketball matchup on August 10 was the most-watched basketball game ever, according to the NBA, with live viewership in China alone estimated at 170 million. A month later, the NBA announced funding of at least a dozen stadiums within the Asian superpower. The goal of this colonial race to riches was an NBA league in China. Then, Yao Ming retired and China decided it didn’t want an NBA-run league. In short, it was a boondoggle. From a 2012 New York Times article titled “The NBA is Missing Its Shots in China:”
The N.B.A., however, has largely suspended those grand plans for the foreseeable future, while also stalling plans to build N.B.A. retail stores throughout the country. David Shoemaker, who became N.B.A. China’s chief executive in June, said the N.B.A.’s agenda now involves several collaborations with the Chinese league, including exchanges in which Chinese coaches and referees receive training in the United States, as well as a basketball academy in southern China to develop elite players. As for a league? Shoemaker called it a distant possibility.
The money lost on the failed far-flung league informed the NBA’s tense lockout negotiations with the players union in 2011. This is not to say that the NBA’s China investment has been a financial failure; just that it’s been a rollercoaster, an ever-winding road away from the league’s focus on growth in its home nation.
After the NBA China failure, the NBA recovered by reaping a hefty sum from China’s television rights contracts, up to 15% of the NBA’s basketball-related income before this recent turbulent period. That money apparently came with strings. The rule seems to be that any criticism of China from anyone within the NBA shuts off the cash spigot. And from China’s perspective, why shouldn’t that be the rule? What use does Xi Jinping, a leader who appears obsessed with bolstering nationalism in an already highly nationalistic country, have for a league without Chinese citizens? Sure, a nation’s people like their bread and circuses, but Xi has already demonstrated a willingness to ban video games if he believes it will stiffen youthful spines.
It would be one thing if the NBA featured a couple Yao-level stars, prestigious representatives that China would be hesitant to pull the plug on. But for a league composed of a bunch of players from the U.S. plus a smattering of other nations? How does this fit into China’s top-down project for the future?
And this is why I perceive the dynamic to be a dead letter, absent some massive reversal in Chinese basketball fortunes. China doesn’t have a tremendous reason to keep the NBA around, beyond its chilling effect on China criticism in a visible quarter. But for reasons both legal and optical, the NBA can’t stop the next Enes Kanter from bluntly ripping China. So basically, the NBA is in no position to ensure the main current thing China likely wants out of this arrangement. Meanwhile, Gallup says that 79% of Americans have a negative opinion of China. Not only does this represent a massive chasm between public and business leader opinion, but it’s notable just as a rare topic of agreement in a nation that disagrees about everything. When Adam Silver broadcasts obsequious compliments in China’s direction, he’s on the wrong side of perhaps the only major topic that Republican and Democrat voters agree on.
For now, there’s a dam between that popular sentiment and what those associated with the NBA say, but we’ve already seen a couple cracks in the barrier. The next Daryl Morey might be resented by his NBA colleagues, but he will be embraced by many of his countrymen.
How is this relationship going to end? It may have already ended but for some technicalities and formalities. The NBA tries to maintain hold of its Tencent streaming deal, and begs to get back on CCTV. Without that TV money, and without a league in China or Chinese players in the NBA, is it still a real marriage?
Meanwhile, the league remains powerless to punish any free spirit who dares criticize a nation that’s highly unpopular within the United States. Kanter, whose career is wrapping up, flicked China’s bruises, but someone else could punch at them. That person might even hit China over how it handled Covid-19, a more sensitive subject (and more relevant topic to some Americans) than human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Adam Silver, bereft of a moral claim to his league’s colonial adventure, now grasps for ping pong diplomacy, saying in April to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on his SiriusXM show Basketball and Beyond with Coach K:
And I, you know, as a former political science major from Duke University, I’m still a believer in soft power. I think these cultural exchanges are critically important. I think it’s an opportunity through sports as you well know, having traveled the world, you know, for Duke and for USA Basketball and for Army, that it’s a way of building commonality among people through sports. Frankly, I’m pleased to hear that no one’s calling for a boycott right now. Not no one, but the administration is not calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, you know, coming up in two years. I think that, you know, especially when tensions are even higher as they are right now between us and China, you know, unless somehow we’re truly going to go our own way, which seems impossible in this interconnected world, that basketball, sports, culture, are an opportunity to bring people together.
If the NBA is a practitioner of “soft power,” then never has might been mushier. It doesn’t have anything China needs, and can’t give China what it wants. Given the adversarial polarity of the superpowers, the NBA stands on two rafts that are drifting apart. When it comes to the NBA’s China relationship, Adam Silver says “it’s complicated” and I’m sure many granular details are. But in the broader view, is it so complex? There’s no Chinese talent in America’s basketball league right now and China appears to be the U.S.A’s chief military rival, to say nothing of economic confrontation.
What’s the grand, attainable vision here? All the TED Talk platitudes on “cultural exchanges” and “the interconnected world” can’t change the basics. Those basics speak to an eventuality: That the NBA’s future in China is a plan on borrowed time.