Chinese business world wants to play ball

Chinese superstar Yao Ming has been linked with a switch to Cleveland if Huang's deal goes through.
Chinese investors want to cash in on the country’s NBA fever with a bid to buy a 15 percent stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Chinese-born businessman Kenny Huang is heading the deal, estimated to be worth more than $70 million. Huang has masterminded previous sports deals, including introducing Mandarin advertisements in the Houston Toyota Center, home of Rockets and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. With his U.S.-based partner Marc Ganis, Huang founded SportsCorp China, a company that facilitates sports and sponsorship contracts between the United States and China. Ganis said that if the deal goes through, it would rank as the largest international sports transaction ever made by Chinese nationals. “Simply having Chinese ownership will increase significantly the visibility of the team within China,” Ganis said. “There will be much more coverage [of the Cavaliers] on the electronic news as well as the printed news. which means the team gets a much broader brand penetration in China for themselves, for their sponsors, and for any other business activities that they may want to engage in.” The news has already sparked excitement among China’s massive basketball fan base. “It makes me proud that the Chinese will be working with my favorite team,” said a 14-year-old boy at Beijing’s Youth Pro Basketball Training Camp. “It’s an honor.”

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At the training camp, players practice in the shadow of a giant statue of four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal, who last month moved to losing Eastern Conference finalist Cleveland from Phoenix Suns. “They’re crazy for basketball,” said the camp’s founder and former Chinese national basketball player Ma Jian. “Basketball has probably become the number one most popular sport in China.” Ma says China’s fascination with shooting hoops stems partially from NBA efforts to promote the league in the world’s most populous nation. A minority ownership of an NBA team will take China and the NBA’s love-love relationship to the next level. “It is a natural extension of what the NBA’s efforts have been in China,” Ganis said in an interview, “for Chinese investors to look not just at sponsoring the NBA, not just getting athletes as endorsers of their products, but also for them to now move into ownership of NBA franchises,” The move is also expected to bolster the Cavaliers’ marketing opportunities in China, where the franchise’s merchandise is already a top seller. Some say that deal may even entice LeBron James, who has claimed he wants to be the first billion-dollar athlete, to re-sign with his hometown team next summer. James, or “Little Emperor” as the Chinese call him, is hugely popular in China. It seems the feeling’s mutual. Playing for a team with links to China, “should be fun,” James told Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer. “It’s a big market; they love the game of basketball .I’ve been over there the last four or five summers, and I know how much they are inspired about the game.” There’s also speculation that if the deal is finalized, the Chinese presence at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena may increase by one. A move by Yao to the Cavaliers has been at the center of discussion in the Chinese bloggosphere. A Chinese forum post reads: “I think there is around a 60 percent chance that Yao Ming will go to the Cavaliers because now the team is part-owned by Chinese investors and they will want to sign him.” “This is all an unknown,” said Yao in the interview with his hometown Shanghai TV station. Although Yao’s recent injury may keep him off the court, it won’t keep Chinese fans from watching the NBA — despite speculation that his broken foot could end his career or, at the very least, keep him out of the next season. “Despite Yao’s injury, many people in China will still be interested in basketball,” says Mang Hongche, the manager of one of Beijing’s NBA Stores. “Yao Ming’s our favorite, but besides Yao there are also other players that we like, like Kobe and LeBron.” With Chinese basketball fans in it for the long-run, the future may see more partnerships between the NBA and China. “In the next three to five years you will see a lot more sponsorships [with the NBA],” Ma Jian said. “The Kenny Huang deal and Yao Ming are just a piece driving this market.”

Some analysts say there’s a possibility the NBA and China may even tie the knot by creating an NBA-CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) partnership. “At the end of the day, the NBA is still a league, so at some point they’ll want to have a league here on the ground,” says Michael Sun, managing director of sports giant IMG. “This is something that I’m sure [NBA China CEO] Ted Chan thinks about every day.”