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Professional leagues from West make play for Chinese market

Basketball may be drawing the most interest, but tennis, car racing and even hockey are muscling in too

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — It's been a splashy press conference so far, with dry ice, pretty girls in curve-enhancing workout gear and a set modelled after a basketball court, complete with floor markings.

The music starts thumping - the Black-Eyed Peas' Let's Get it Started - and four teens decked out in throwback jerseys, baggy shorts and gleaming sneakers take the stage, basketballs in hand, to knock out a well-polished dribbling routine that finishes the afternoon in style.

It's a lot of hoopla for what is, in the end, an announcement by the National Basketball Association that it has extended its agreement with Sohu.com, an Internet portal that hosts the league's Chinese web site. But in China, the NBA is a hot property, and more than a dozen television cameras are on hand to take it all in.

"It would be a press release back home," shrugs Michael Denzel, the managing director for NBA Asia. "But this is a big deal here."

Major Western sports are increasingly a big deal among Chinese fans, and the interest is mutual.

In a one-month period this fall, China played host to a pair of NBA exhibition games featuring Houston Rockets star and Shanghai resident Yao Ming; the China Open, which instantly became one of the most lucrative events on the professional tennis circuit; and the first Formula One race in China, held in Shanghai on a new track built for the occasion for the equivalent of $1-billion Canadian.

The sports industry, like virtually every business category, has long considered the Chinese market one of endless commercial promise, if only it could be successfully cultivated. As far back as 1979, under Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy, the NBA champion Washington Wizards played a pair of exhibition games in China, and the Cleveland-based International Management Group, the world's leading sports marketing firm, began doing business in China not long after.

That was around the time former New York Yankee great Reggie Jackson waved off a bad game by joking: "When we lose and I strike out, a billion people in China don't care." More and more, that's not true. Major-league baseball has been trying to cultivate China as both a market and a well of talent in recent years, helping start the fledging Chinese Baseball League, and hoping for its own version of Yao - a player with star potential who can help drive interest in the sport.

The English Premier League has enough of a presence in China that soccer games featuring lower-profile entries like Chelsea and Birmingham draw television ratings only a fraction below long-time favourites like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, and teams are combing China for stars to appeal to the growing fan base.

The National Football League is financing flag football programs, and the International Ice Hockey Federation is launching the Asian Hockey League this season, with two teams in China and two each in Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Leading the way is the NBA, which has watched TV ratings of its games grow by nearly 200 per cent in China in the past two years and basketball overtake soccer as the favourite sport among Chinese teenagers.

While the league has been seeding interest for more than two decades, it wasn't long ago that NBA communications staff in Hong Kong were being asked by local media to stop sending releases as they were wasting valuable fax paper. Now there's a recognition that the league is the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time.

"We just happen to have a 7-foot-5 guy come along who's a once-in-a-generation player coming out of China at the same time as China has joined the WTO [World Trade Organization] and is opening itself up for business," says Denzel. "The Internet has taken off and you have homegrown web portals like Sohu.com that provide an immediate way to tap into the billion consumers in China directly and with less, I'll say, state-controlled interference."

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