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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins


NBA China has had by anyone's standard a tumultuous past 12 months in China. Headlined with the infamous tweet by Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey which almost derailed the October China Games in Shanghai and Shenzhen featuring the Lakers and Nets. For most brands, it’s close to a death sentence, and for the NBA it’s been significant, as Commissioner Adam Silver recently quoting ‘The NBA stands to lose $300-400 million’ in China alone.

This all before the most recent news last week about the suspension of the remaining NBA season due to COVID-19.

But is it all that bad? And do the fans genuinely reflect the government and commercial implications of the climate? Our team at Mailman has taken a deep look into the online data across China’s leading social media platforms with some leading fan communities in the mainland to see how deep the pain really is.

Social media has soared

Having reviewed the past 6 months (Sept 25, 2019 - Feb 25, 2020) of social media data across Weibo, China’s dominant micro-blogging platform and NBA’s largest follower base, we see growth across all accounts. Firstly with teams, every single one of the 30 NBA teams has grown in followers. None greater than the Los Angeles Lakers growing over 850,000 new followers, and the lowest growth of any team was the Atlanta Hawks with just over 28,000.

Even the Houston Rockets, given all the negative attention they received in China in October, have still grown their following by over 131,000.

The NBA’s main account has grown over 1,436,047 new followers in the same period. The total accumulated growth across all teams and the NBA main account have been 6,947,609. Not bad for a down year.

Engagement also on the rise

With more followers engaging the NBA in China, clear growth in engagement can be seen across the board. The Lakers have unquestionably been the hottest topic in the league this year with the Lake Show featuring LeBron and Mr. Davis showing a significant lift in online chatter, up 259% on the previous six months with 2,300,000 engagements across their Weibo channel. The Warriors, even with their lackluster year, have maintained a healthy engagement with over 2,450,000 for the same period.

Benchmarking against football

The battle continues in China for the champion of all sports leagues. It’s an ever-growing debate about who is the most powerful league in China, the class of the English Premier League vs the entertainment the NBA delivers. Pound for pound across social we see the NBA winning out comfortably, with the Lakers and Warriors each beating out the closest football club FC Barcelona by close to 100% more engagement. Liverpool are a close 2nd in the football world, yet are still seeing less than 50% of the engagement both leading NBA teams deliver.

China was Kobe’s second home

The tragedy of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Giana Bryant passing shocked the Chinese NBA community. All major online sports platforms featured some memorial or celebration of his career. His final post on his personal Weibo account wishing China a happy Chinese New Year has since had over 1,300,000 likes. He was a regular in China, each year visiting his adoring fans and supporting various partnerships. Over 20,000,000 fans tuned in live to watch the memorial which was streamed on Tencent at 2am in China. There were over 5,000,00 views on the interactive H5 memorial page too. On Weibo the tragedy had received over 10,000,000,000 reads across 100’s of topics.

The All-Star Weekend saw gains

When comparing the raw social data from the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend to last year's event we see total engagement across teams accounts over the All-Star Weekend up 60% (195k v 116k respectively). While followers growth for the same period rose by 260,000 vs a total gain of 810,000 in 2019 over the weekend. The official NBA account on Weibo had over 232,000 engagements in 2020 vs 161,000 in 2019, a gain of 69%.

Douyin, aka TikTok of China exploding

Douyin, otherwise known as TikTok in the west has delivered above all ambitions. The NBA were not the first onto the platform of any major sporting league, with game highlights, animated shorts and rich storytelling it's by far the dominant league across the video platform. The NBA launched an official account in November 2018 and quickly gained an impressive 10,800,000 followers and over 300m+ likes for good measure. The league now stands above the next best European football leagues Spain’s La Liga on 1,400,000 followers and England’s Premier League on 2,000,000. It appears the NBA is ripe for short video engagement with this younger crowd.

MORE, the Voice of Athletes Rising

As teams have tackled their own corporate speak in the mainland, a relative newcomer to China’s digital landscape has been MORE Sports, an athlete-centric app and social media management ecosystem who’s seen a huge drive in demand for more personal storytelling and engagement from their favourite players. Since launching their platform in 2019 with just 16 NBA talents, including Luka Dončić, Donovan Mitchell, Zach LaVine and former stars Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash, they’ve grown their APP user base to over 5,500,000 and engage with more than 6,000,000 via management of athletes' Weibo and Douyin accounts. Since the infamous Morey tweets, MORE Sports has seen Weibo growth over 146%, and with more athletes expected to come on board, this should provide a healthy platform for direct engagement.

Fans don’t reflect politics and money

Almost all key metrics are up significantly, the online audience in China is still growing, sports are still developing to become part of everyday life. What this data shows is that although the NBA has seen enormous challenges this past 6 months politically and commercially, it doesn’t reflect the fans' engagement or desire for the league. The true pulse of the league is best measured by genuine interest, these data speak to the heart of the Chinese fans.


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