LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The young 2016-17 NBA season is gaining momentum and the avid audience in China is keeping up and indulging a love affair with basketball through a vastly increased access to game action.
China sports fans have long loved the theatrics of basketball, and this season NBA China has further catered to them by offering a full menu of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook to their television screens and electronic devices.
Tencent, a digital broadcast partner of the NBA in China, launched League Pass for the first time this year.
The live subscription package features all live NBA games, bringing a boost to the more than 750 million viewers that watched NBA programing on TV in China last year.
In addition, NBA China and Tencent also launched the league’s first NBA App in China in April which delivered mobile action to millions of tablets and phones that ensured the NBA will retain its stranglehold on the sports fans of China.
“It’s really hard to describe the level of passion and excitement of the Chinese basketball fan,” NBA China CEO David Shoemaker told Reuters.
“They are very sophisticated fans. They have followed the history of the game and are familiar with the legends and key figures.”
China’s appetite for the NBA transcends culture, language and time zone.
Consider that when the average night game tips off in the United States it is morning in China and many fans are following the action while at work and school.
That does not dissuade them from tuning in to the country’s most popular basketball highlights show, NBA Prime Time. The show airs on national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) which has entered its 30th year of broadcasting the NBA.
Basketball’s bloodline runs deep through China and is believed to have been introduced by Christian missionaries in the 1890s.
It is now China’s most popular team sport with an estimated 300 million people playing the game — from recreational leagues and universities to the Chinese Basketball Association, Asia’s top professional league.
The NBA began interacting with Chinese basketball in the 1980s, spearheaded by then Commissioner David Stern, first hosting the Chinese National team in 1985.
The arrival of Hall of Fame center Yao Ming, selected with the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, sent China’s devotion to the NBA into the stratosphere.
Ironically, it was Yao’s retirement in 2011 that proved the league’s sustainability in China.
“When he retired it was an important (moment),” Shoemaker said. “Some thought it would be the beginning of a decline, but the opposite has been true.
“Yao was a huge step and a real catalyst for the game because he brought a whole new generation of fans that watched every (Houston) Rockets game but have now become more sophisticated and now follow all of the household names.”
Recently retired Kobe Bryant has long been a huge figure in China, eliciting a memorable response from fans at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but current stars and teams continue to grow in popularity.
China has become a common final stop for aging NBA players, including past All Stars such as Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Metta World Peace, who all played in the CBA before hanging up their sneakers.
NBA China is trying to ensure basketball stars continue to cross over, fueling the crazed interest in the sport with its saturation coverage.
Editing by Larry Fine