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Professional leagues from West make play for Chinese market

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China's sports federations have the power to stem any tide - they have to grant permission for top players to play overseas - but it's unlikely they'll use it, in part because they receive hefty compensation from foreign clubs for releasing their players.

Their challenge instead is to find a way to keep made-in-China athletes and leagues relevant even as the Western leagues come looking for talent and fans, and Chinese consumers and athletes look increasingly outside their own borders for entertainment and opportunities.

It's the new game within the game.

"The growth in popularity in Western sports in China is a two-edged sword," says Rhoads, the Shanghai-based sports marketer who counts both the National Football League and the Chinese Basketball Association as clients. "Having the NBA on TV allows people to fall in love with basketball, but does that mean they'll stop paying attention to the CBA? Are they creating basketball fans or NBA fans? Is the CBA doomed to being minor league forever?

"That's not the NBA's problem, that's the CBA's problem, and Chinese sports officials have to figure it out. It's fascinating to watch."

Rising stars in East

The National Basketball Association has been able to ride the wave of popularity created by Houston Rockets star Yao Ming to become the most popular sports brand among young people in China. Here are some other young Chinese stars who may be making their name in the West.

Basketball

Yi Jianlian, 16, is a 6-foot-11 forward with the Chinese Basketball Association's Guangdong Tigers and may be the first player selected in the 2006 NBA draft.

Soccer

Dong Fangzhou, a 19-year-old striker on China's under-23 team, was signed by soccer superpower Manchester United for $7-million (U.S.).

Baseball

Wang Chao is a 6-foot-4 power pitcher signed as a 16-year-old by the Seattle Mariners in 2002. He is expected to be the centrepiece of China's effort to earn a baseball medal at the 2008 Olympics.

Formula One

Ho-pin Tung, a 22-year-old, Dutch-born ethnic Chinese, dominated the 2003 Asian Formula BMW championship, earning him an F1 test with BMW-Williams and a job racing on the highly competitive European F3 circuit in 2004.

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