The NBA has a huge following in China that the league has spent decades cultivating. According to the Chinese Basketball Association, more than 300 million people play basketball in China and more than 700 million watched a televised NBA game last season – despite a time difference that means most games are broadcast between 6-10 a.m. With such rabid fans, China is easily the NBA’s second-largest market.
So expectations were high when the Minnesota Timberwolves arrived in China at the beginning of the month to play a pair of pre-season games against the Golden State Warriors as part of NBA Global Games – China. The NBA teams played in front of sold out crowds in Shenzhen’s Universiade Center on October 5 and Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena on October 8 – each have a capacity of approximately 18,000. The Timberwolves easily won the first game before Steph Curry led the Warriors to a lopsided 142-110 victory to split the series.
Although Global Games – China is only part of a series of overseas exhibition games that the NBA plays around the world each year, China has been one of the largest international partners in the last decade. The first NBA team to play an exhibition game in China was The Washington Bullets back in 1979. In 2004, the NBA began hosting pairs of preseason games in China and the country has hosted the series annually since 2007. An NBA team is only allowed to take part in an international trip once every three years and China remains a choice destination; this year marked the third time that the Golden State Warriors made the trip since 2008.
Timberwolves 5% minority owner Lizhang Jiang is the first Chinese owner in NBA history and has helped to boost the Timberwolves profile in Chinese markets using targeted, Chinese-language outreach on social media platforms more likely to be used by the team’s Chinese fan base.
Jake Howry is a Georgetown University Graduate Student and Intern at the East-West Center in Washington