Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets, watches on during their game against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 29, 2014. Photo: AFP
The NBA Wednesday announced two games to be played this fall in China in the US pro basketball league's latest effort to mine a massive market with an insatiable taste for hoops.
The Charlotte Hornets will go up against the Los Angeles Clippers in Shenzhen and Shanghai in October exhibition games to kick off the 2014-15 season for Chinese National Basketball Association fans.
The NBA is expected to announce additional international games in the weeks ahead, part of the US league's quest to make basketball the world's leading sport.
The NBA has invested especially heavily in China, where the game is played by an estimated 300 million people and where it has announced a venture to sell NBA apparel and footwear in more than 6,000 stores owned by Adidas and Chinese sportswear brand ANTA.
The league also has major contracts with Chinese television and online broadcasters and sponsorships with Taiwan-based Cathay Financial Group and with popular brands of beer, sports drinks, and other goods in the world's most populous country.
NBA officials do not disclose financial details on the China business, but say China is the league's biggest market after the US.
"We've seen incredible growth in the development of the audience," NBA China chief executive David Shoemaker told AFP.
China-NBA love affair grows
The NBA has offices in 12 international markets including Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai. NBA executive Sal LaRocca told a sports business conference earlier this month that India is "at the top" of the list of key emerging markets.
But the NBA has long shown particular zeal for China, where it employs about 130 in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Shoemaker said the staff level will continue to grow.
Key components of the league's thrust include NBA training of some 1,200 Chinese coaches, the creation of a year-round training program for elite Chinese teen players in Dongguan and an after-school program launched with former star Yao Ming, whose run at the Houston Rockets in the first decade of the 2000s lifted the sport to new heights in his home market.
Shoemaker was not ready to predict when China would rival the US in basketball in the Olympics or elsewhere, but he said it is coming.
"There's still some way to go in terms of the level of Chinese players as compared to the US players," he said.
"They excel in creating champions and I expect that will be the case in basketball as well."
NBA stars have played in China all the way back to a 1979, when the Washington Bullets played against the Shanghai team of Yao Ming's father.
Shoemaker said Shenzhen, a city of 10 million on the border with Hong Kong, was an obvious candidate for an NBA game and that the Shenzhen Universiade Center, where the game will be played, is a "world class" arena.
The Clippers-Hornets contests will be especially starry if attended by Hornets owner Michael Jordan and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft.
Chinese fans know the US league's stars well, said NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, a veteran of 18 seasons on NBA courts.
"I have been to the largest cities and the smallest villages in China, and the one constant is their love and knowledge of basketball and the NBA. Walking down the street I am humbled that the fans know and recognize me, even though I have retired from the game."
Shoemaker said there are no plans to launch an NBA league in China or greater Asia.
But the league is trying to build support within its ranks to play weekend games as early as 9 or 10 am on the east coast of the United States to draw a prime-time viewing audience in China. Such a shift will not be ready in time for the 2015-6 season.
The proposed change is a "work in progress" and would only be enacted "with the full buy-in of the teams and the owners and the players themselves," Shoemaker said.