Why Doesn’t China do March Madness?
For almost all American sports fans, March means only one thing: The Men’s Division I College Basketball Tournament, or ‘March Madness’. This festival of amateur basketball commands vast audiences, comparable even with the NBA playoffs, in the US.
However, in China, asking about March Madness will result in little other than blank expressions. This is certainly not for lack of interest in basketball, an estimated 300 million people play regularly, or even American basketball, the NBA’s official Weibo account has more followers than its twitter account.
Why the lack of interest or recognition?
The most significant reason is the limited investment (in terms of time and capital) into the Chinese market by the NCAA. Where the NBA have been shipping game films to China since the late 80’s the first major broadcasting deal for college basketball in China was completed in 2016 and only included the ‘Final Four’ stages of the NCAA Tournament. Instant success is very rarely accomplished in China, especially by foreign sports organisations.
Whilst any partnership with online giant Tencent is very positive, the fact that it only includes 3 games may prove to be a shortcoming in the tournament’s short-term development in China. Chinese fans are extremely passionate and much prefer to engage with a team over the course of the year, rather than pick up and drop off as big games come and go.
The China Games
Following the NBA’s lead, the NCAA has also organised games to be held in China. In partnership with Alibaba, the first regular season college game played in China was held in 2015, between the Universities of Washington and Texas. 2016 saw Stanford take on Harvard and UCLA are scheduled to face Georgia Tech later this year.
These games provide mutual benefits to both the NCAA and participating universities. They offer a much-needed platform on which college basketball can grow, but also offer an unparalleled recruitment opportunity for the universities themselves.
China’s sports mentality
Another potential difficulty for the NCAA is the status of university sport in China. Unlike in the US, where massive scholarships are handed to elite athletic prospects, Chinese universities historically invest very little in competitive sports programmes. Sporting potential or prowess accounts for much less during the application process. The small concessions that are given lower academic requirements rather than offer financial assistance.
There is evidence that this approach is beginning to change, however. The recently announced acquisition of the exclusive broadcasting rights for the Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA) by Alibaba-owned video streaming service Youku, shows building interest and ambition around university basketball in China. Youku will broadcast over 2,000 live matches and highlights over the 9 month CUBA season.
The coverage could be the first step in popularising amateur basketball in China. It will also find approval with the newly appointed CBA President, Yao Ming, who has been tasked with resurrecting domestic Chinese basketball and knows the role that the college system plays in the NBA’s strength.
FIBA is a good example of how strong the basketball base, built by the NBA, is in China. However, success for the college game is far from dead set, there is no historic connection with the teams, and the current sporting landscape is much harder to build relationships in than the one originally tapped in the 80s.
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