Over the past few months, this blog has discussed in detail the NBA’s Chinese youth basketball strategy – including the NBA Academy structure and the effects of recent Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) reforms.
In this edition, we will cover the League’s “Global Games” strategy as it relates to China, and the impact it has on participating teams and players.
The “Global Games” Strategy
The League’s “Global Games” strategy officially began in October 2013, “marking the 35th anniversary of the NBA’s first trip abroad.” While teams had been playing overseas for years, this new branding represented a push by the NBA to expand the scope of international competition into new countries as well as established markets, like China.
From a historical perspective, these games follow in the footsteps of the NBA’s earlier efforts in China. The two most important of these being a 1979 visit by the Washington Bullets, who traveled on the invitation of Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, and a 2004 game in which Yao Ming returned to China as a member of the Houston Rockets.
These tours allowed the League to open the Chinese basketball market and helped set the stage for events like this year’s 2018 NBA China “Global Games” in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The 2018 NBA China Global Games
During China’s national week holiday, the Philadelphia 76’ers (Sixers) and the Dallas Mavericks (Mavs) squared off in the NBA’s 6th annual China “Global Games.” Each team claimed one victory apiece, the Sixers in Shanghai on October 5th (120-114), while the Mavs won in Shenzhen on October 8th (115-112).
Both games were preseason tune-ups and did not count towards regular season records. As a result, coaches limited minutes for many of the best players on the trip, including Joel Embiid. “The Process” played sparingly, but still managed to dominate in Shanghai “with game-highs of 22 points and 10 rebounds to go with four assists, one steal and six turnovers in the Sixers’ 120-114 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Arena.”
Why Does the NBA Hold “Global Games” in China?
The NBA’s rationale for holding “Global Games” in China is two-fold. First, develop NBA fandom amongst young Chinese basketball consumers and second, increase fan identification with the next generation of superstars – in this case, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Sixers and Luka Dončić of the Mavs.
Off the court, the “Global Games” provide additional benefits in the form of improved partnerships with government authorities and boosted public perception of the League. Sponsored and well-publicized “NBA Cares” events for participating teams have also become a hallmark of the games in China.
This year, the Mavericks took part in an event with 50 Special Olympians from a nearby school, while the Sixers “…helped open a brand new NBA Cares Learn & Play Education Center in Shenzhen.”
Pairing a regularly scheduled event in China with community events is a prudent move and one that will serve the NBA’s global interests well going forward. As the “Global Games” continue, the participating teams and their players will also benefit from a marketing and team chemistry perspective.
How the Mavs’ Benefit: Dirk’s Twilight Tour and Ding’s Debut
The Mavs aced their China tour from a public relations standpoint. In addition to the aforementioned NBA Cares event, the team chose two excellent representatives to be the face of the team throughout the experience: Dirk Nowitzki and Ding Yanyuhang.
Despite not playing a minute in either game, Dirk Nowitzki still managed to charm the crowd in both cities. As one of the NBA’s most endearing veterans/global ambassadors, he was tasked with addressing the fans in Shenzhen and Shanghai, and was even gifted a guitar from former Mav and CBA superstar, Wang Zhizhi.
But the real star in the eyes of Chinese basketball fans was Ding Yanyuhang, the two-time CBA league MVP, who was signed to the Mavs’ preseason roster on July 24th. It is unlikely the Mavs ever intended Ding to make the regular season roster, but instead wanted to use him to promote the team during the trip. Although Ding managed only one point and played very little due to injury, the strategy paid off as local fans were delighted to see a homegrown talent score for an NBA team.
[Note: Ding will still get a fair shot to earn his way back on the NBA roster once he recovers from the knee injury that held him out of Summer League play. The Mavs coach, Rick Carlisle, said “Ding will sign an Exhibit 10 contract with the Texas Legends, the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, when the team returns to Dallas.”]
How the Sixers’ Benefit: Trust the Process
Similar to Dirk and the Mavs, the Sixers players enjoyed interacting with their fans in China – many for the first time. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two of the Sixers key draft picks during “The Process”, used the trip to engage and capitalize on pre-existing marketing deals. For example, Embiid supported his Master Kong ice tea endorsement while Simmons took pictures with a Beats by Dre billboard featuring his image. Both have since expressed interest in returning to make an annual trip to China.
Aside from the personal marketing appeal, Ben Simmons stressed the value that the trip had for team camaraderie saying, “[b]eing here is huge for us, building chemistry.” As a team, the Sixers maintained a positive outlook on the entire experience. Ken Pompey, the Sixers beat writer, noted “[t]he Sixers seem to be viewing this venture as a week-long training camp away from their practice facility. They preach that this is an opportunity to come together and enjoy a different part of the world and a different culture as a group.”
Drawbacks for the Teams
Despite the generally positive tone, some team personnel were less enthusiastic about the trip. In particular, some team personnel made a point about the proximity to the start of the season, as well as the risk of travel-related illnesses. For Mavs players Ryan Broekhoff, Kostas Antetokounmpo, and assistant coach Stephen Silas that risk was realized when all three came down with a “nasty bug” and missed game time.
These points have not been missed by the NBA who is always looking to make the trip easier on the players, especially from the standpoint of travel. However, given the limitations of current airline technology, it will be a while before the total travel time can be cut down to anything much lower than 14-16 hours for east coast teams. Therefore, for the time being there will still be critics who will argue these teams “need practice time more than they need to represent the NBA on goodwill exhibitions on the other side of the world.”
The Future of the “Global Games” in China
From the NBA’s standpoint, these matchups are strategically valuable in that they increase fan awareness with young talent and boost public perception of the League within China. Teams and individual players also have the opportunity to promote their own brand and gain fans while traveling.
As previously mentioned, the NBA is limited by airline technology and can only manage preseason games in China. But, regular season contests in more accessible locations around the world are already scheduled for this year. In December, the Magic will travel to Mexico City to square off against the Jazz and the Bulls, while the Knicks play the Wizards in London a month later. Featuring young talent, like Mo Bamba of the Magic and Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz, in these major markets will continue to raise recognition and create new fans of the League.
Although the future of the “Global Games” strategy is bright, there are some who wonder what effect the worsening relations between China and the United States will have going forward. However, even if the arrangement in China becomes untenable, there are other countries with whom the NBA can partner like India and Nigeria who, according to Bleacher Report, is the favorite to host the first “Global game” in Africa.
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Pro Skills Basketball is a proud member of the Jr. NBA flagship network and is excited to be working in China. We look forward to developing Chinese basketball culture in a positive manner for years to come!