CunBA: The ‘village basketball’ phenomenon sweeping China
This article originally appeared in SportBusiness.
Amateur basketball tournaments in rural villages in China have become a phenomenon in the country, drawing big crowds and the attention of national media. Denis Green relates the tale and considers the lessons for other sports.
Festival-like basketball tournaments have been growing in popularity across rural villages in China, grabbing the attention of traditional media, social platforms, the government and NBA China. The phenomenon goes by the name of CunBA (村BA), which in English translates as ‘Village Basketball’.
CunBA matches have for decades been played as part of the traditional Miao ethnic harvest festival which falls on the sixth day of the sixth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, an ‘official CunBA’ was hosted between July 12 and 20 in Taipan village, Guizhou province, attended by 176 teams from surrounding villages, kickstarting a new era for village basketball. It is the first time such a grassroots sports tournament has made such an impact online and offline in China.
Kuaishou and NBA backing
The NBA and CBA have long dominated the attention of basketball fans in China. CunBA this year entered the spotlight through collaborations with new partners, an expansion in the number of matches, professional broadcasting of matches and state media attention.
Originating in 1936, CunBA is renowned for its electric atmosphere, open participation (it is contested by amateur players), and ability to bring rural, often overlooked, communities together. It’s free to attend, the courtsides are always packed with locals and tourists are welcome. The crowd noise is like nothing you’ll experience anywhere else in China.
NBA China and social streaming platform Kuaishou have been at the heart of CunBA’s explosion into the mainstream this year.
Kuaishou is the official short video partner of the NBA in China and has jumped on CunBA’s rising popularity. The platform has for several years positioned itself strongly within basketball, providing content and services to connect local talent, unite basketball communities, and broadcast top domestic and foreign leagues.
This year’s ‘Rural Basketball Championship Cup’ CunBA tournament in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, on September 17-18, was co-hosted by Kuaishou and NBA China. The event put CunBA firmly on the map. Four teams from rural areas in Quanzhou competed, with participation from basketball KOLs (key opinion leaders – influencers).
The tournament was broadcast live by Xinhua News Agency, CCTV.com, and national and regional media Kuaishou accounts, and has been widely reported on by top media outlets including People’s Daily. The live broadcasts of the two-day event reached a reported 120 million unique viewers, with a cumulative 244 million live views across all digital platforms.
Kuaishou also produced and launched the first-ever CunBA documentary, featuring former Chinese professional basketball player and legend, Chang Lechen. The first episode focused on young ballers in Heyuan, Guangdong, and a second episode focused on the CunBA in Jinjiang, Fujian.
Among other metrics from this year’s CunBA coverage on Kuaishou:
The hashtag #I am playing basketball in the villages# on Kuaishou was used by 1,635 videos produced by content creators and received 110m impressions
#CunBA# on Kuaishou received 2,723 videos produced by content creators and 76.25m impressions
The first episode of the CunBA documentary had 30,664 engagements, the second episode got 107,960 engagements
Kuaishou is now diving deeper with CunBA, hosting and promoting more activities and events in villages. Supporting and investing in one of the most popular local sports in China at grassroots level in villages is a recipe for success, as it aligns with a government focus on improving the quality of life in villages and Tier 3 and 4 cities.
NBA China has been promoting and supporting basketball in villages for many years through various projects such as NBA Cares, a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative. When the CunBA event in Guizhou first went viral, NBA China wasn’t heavily involved. But the core values and goals of CunBA are what NBA China is keen to promote. Fast forward a few days, and NBA China and Kuaishou found an opportunity to collaborate, helping promote the tournament in Quanzhou by producing a livestream and delivering an array of original content around the tournament.
For the village
One of the key reasons why CunBA has been so well received is that it gives opportunities, a spotlight and hope for often neglected rural villages. The story of China’s dramatic economic development in recent decades has involved rural villages emptying out as cities and industrial areas grew rapidly.
Taipan village, located in Guizhou province, is the original home of CunBA, and once the tournament there began to garner attention, many other villages began to use the CunBA name and copy the model. This has included having live streaming and social content. Recent data shows there have been more than 4,000 village basketball matches in the first half year of 2022 in Guizhou alone, with nearly 2,500 village teams taking part.
For now, CunBA is a set of mostly independent regional basketball tournaments. In the future, it has the potential to grow into a nationwide competition, working with the biggest platforms and brands, boosting the awareness and prospects of smaller towns and cities.
CunBA also has the potential to help villages develop sports and travel tourism. Using Taipan village as an example, during this year’s official CunBA in July, there were nearly 500 booths selling things like cultural gifts, snacks and clothes, and there were 40,000 visitors, generating tourism revenue of RMB21.54m ($3m).
But let’s not forget that CunBA is an amateur competition, owned by the villages and played as part of the Chinese harvest festival. After going viral, the competition will no doubt attract more teams, brands and audiences. The villages could face hurdles if the scale of the events grows beyond their control. The commercialisation of CunBA will also be sensitive due to the fact the tournaments are part of traditional festivals, with all prizes being donated by locals and tickets being free.
Over the coming months, be sure to keep your eye on this important sports phenomenon. For sports looking to develop at grassroots level in China, it may be time to start thinking about your own CunBA.