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The NBA Lockout in China

By Caitlin Coyle, an intern from American University in Washington. Based on a story in the  Nov. 21 edition of the EO.

“He told me his name was Lebron!” was one of the first stories my mother told me upon her return to the States from China, telling me of a young man from Shanghai who chose his English name based on the famous American basketball star. The NBA is extremely popular in China, but with the current lockout and retirement of Chinese citizen Yao Ming, some wonder whether America’s professional basketball league will be able to maintain its popularity in the Middle Kingdom.

The NBA lockout seems to be nowhere near resolution, especially with the most recent suspension of the season only two weeks before it was supposed to start. The player’s union has also hired famous anti-trust lawyer David Boies, and plan to stop making concessions, inevitably further stalling any resolution to the matter.

The negotiations have had a fair amount of coverage in the Chinese media and search the hash tag (#停摆 - tíng bǎi) on Weibo and you’ll find a long list of complaints from disgruntled fans who are starting to lose hope in seeing a game this winter.

But why basketball? The lockout has been met with a lot of apathy in that States and for some Americans, like me, basketball is just the sport that fills the time between football and baseball season, two sports that have virtually no fan base in China. Yet, go to a clothing store in Beijing and you can easily find a Lakers jersey and basketball shoes. Ask a person on the street if they know what their Yankee hat means, and they’ll say New York; ask their favorite basketball team, and you will be told the Nuggets, Rockets, Celtics, or Knicks. On my University campus in Beijing, the basketball courts are always filled, but the soccer pitch is almost always free.

The popularity of the NBA in China is often connected to Yao Ming, the abnormally tall center from Shanghai. He was a first round draft pick for the Houston Rockets in 2002, after playing for five years for the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). He became one of China’s most well known athletes while playing in the United States. Throughout his career, although plagued with physical ailments causing him to only play about 50% of the time, Yao’s popularity as well as that of the NBA grew exponentially in China. He has maintained a celebrity status in China since returning to Shanghai and enrolling at Jiaotong University, according to the EO, where he has to enter a classroom at the last minute in order to avoid a ruckus.

Blogs and opinion pieces have questioned whether Yao’s retirement will affect the NBA’s popularity in China., a blog about basketball “with Chinese characteristics” recently posted an article about the combination of Yao’s retirement and the lockout causing a sharp drop in NBA ratings in China. Yao has been the face of the NBA in China for years. If you go to Xinhua’s NBA section in Sports, the Rockets, Yao’s basketball team, has its own separate news feed. Without Yao, there is a definitive gap where the NBA can only hope that Chinese fans have become attached enough to Yao’s teammates and other big names to keep watching games.

However, with the lockout, a lot of both American and Chinese fans are losing patience. On Weibo, there are jokes that fans are going to start learning the rules to baseball, or watch soccer instead. Reports on the NBA lockout are often followed by several sad emoticons. One post reads, “NBA players and owners, doesn’t matter who is right, you have not considered the fans, we just want to watch the game”.

Liu Xueyang, who has chosen the English name Michael, works for a company teaching English to young Chinese children. He is in his early 20s, and very passionate about the NBA. He loves the Denver Nuggets and tries to wake up early to watch basketball every Saturday and Sunday morning. When asked about the possibility of the lockout cancelling the season he responded mostly with expletives, but also talked about how sad it made him. “I get that it’s about money, but I just want to watch the games.” However, Michael is also a fan of the CBA, an organization that may benefit from the lockout. Hailing from Beijing, Michael told me about his love of the Ducks, Beijing’s basketball team, and how the level of play was not as good as the NBA, but definitely was improving. He joins a host of Weibo users in preferring to watch the NBA, but knowing the CBA is a good alternative.

The lockout could strengthen the CBA, as at least three free agents are going to play in China. In August, the CBA, according to the NBA, said it would not sign players that were under-contract to play, like Carmelo Anthony who expressed interest in playing in the CBA. However, the league would instead be able to sign free agents from the States. Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, and J.R. Smith, all players formerly a part of the Denver Nuggets, have signed in China. The biggest struggle the CBA has had signing free agents is getting players to agree to play an entire season in the CBA, rather than sign a short term contract that would allow them to leave when the NBA season returned, according to coverage on CBA’s free agent signings on ESPN. As the lockout negotiations worsen, there are still rumors of other players looking at China and Europe as options for the 2011/2012 season, but with Europe’s season well underway, and the CBA’s slated to start on Nov. 19, there probably won’t be any more signings this month.

There is always hope for an NBA season this year. The last time negotiations lasted this long, a shortened season was agreed upon starting in February. In China, the question remains as to whether this will directly affect the popularity of the NBA abroad. As mentioned in an article about the lockout in the EO this week, the players maintain that the owners are insatiable, and the owners maintain that the players are greedy. This all occurs while the fans suffer, but there are other options.

Americans have college basketball to keep them going, and hopefully the Chinese will take pride in the CBA. Regardless, if there is not a season, the NBA will be sorely missed, and many are still holding on to hope for some games this winter. According to Liu Zhao (刘钊), an online editor with the EO’s Chinese-language website,  “My weekends are very boring. I really hope that some time this December I can wake up turn on the TV and say, there’s Lebron James, there’s the Chicago Bulls. It makes me very sad.”

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