NBA to operate arenas in China

Times Staff Writer

The NBA will announce today plans for a multibillion-dollar real estate venture to design and operate a dozen multipurpose arenas in major Chinese cities for a future affiliated basketball league.

The NBA is teaming with AEG, owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, to operate arenas that will hold 17,000 spectators, with the primary funding coming from the Chinese government and Chinese banks.

“We think that it’s a terrific partnership,” NBA Commissioner David Stern told The Times. “And we think that not only will it be good for basketball that will be played in those places, but it will be very good for general entertainment in China.”


Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, said one of the new arenas might be in Shanghai. “The decision that we’re going to have to make is which of the 12 do we chose, because there are so many cities that want to do this,” he said.

The arenas will showcase basketball, other sporting events, concerts, cultural events and trade shows.

However, Leiweke downplayed the idea that the arenas are being built based on a guarantee of having an NBA-style league in China.

But eventually -- and Stern didn’t offer a timetable -- the arenas will house some type of affiliated basketball league, he said. “The start of a league is not essential to the success of these buildings,” Stern said.

The NBA and AEG see vast potential in China, and that’s why they formed the partnership. “We think we’ve gotten ourselves the best and most knowledgeable partner available,” Stern said.

AEG, a sports and entertainment conglomerate, owns the Kings, the Galaxy, the Staples Center and the Home Depot Center in Carson. It also operates arenas across the country and in London and Germany.


David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said it’s natural for the NBA and AEG to form a partnership to pursue the growing China market.

“I think for all of them, China represents the new frontier. . . . If you look at where AEG has gone the last several years, they’ve really begun to focus on facility ownership and operation and they’ve continued to focus on building their international presence,” Carter said.

“And the NBA, looking to make sure they further penetrate China, certainly wants a partner like AEG to help them navigate new markets.”

Basketball has become popular in much of Asia, including China.

During the Beijing Olympic Games, Kobe Bryant was mobbed and drew chants of “MVP” when the U.S. men’s basketball team played. More than 1 billion people watched the U.S. play China, the biggest TV audience for a basketball game.

The NBA is so popular in China that American players have nine of the top 10 best-selling basketball jerseys, led by Bryant, LeBron James and Allen Iverson. Yao Ming’s jersey is 10th.

The league also played a major role in helping China build the Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena, which housed the Olympic basketball tournament. In a separate deal, AEG now operates the Beijing facility.


There already is a pro league called Chinese Basketball Assn., and current NBA players Yao and Yi Jianlian established themselves as young stars there before coming to play in the U.S.

With the prospect of arenas being built, Stern said, “of course the promise that each building sponsor wants is that if there is a league, the potential building will have the team in the NBA [or] CBA partnership league that may be starting.”

Overseas expansion for American sports leagues is nothing new.

The NFL, with great fanfare, opened a development league in Europe in 1991. It folded in 2007. NFL Europe was reportedly losing $30 million per season.

But for years Stern has talked of NBA expansion overseas, possibly adding franchises in Mexico or Europe, or sponsoring leagues in Asia, Latin America or Europe. His teams already play exhibitions in Europe and Asia.

During the Beijing Olympics, Stern said the NBA has plans to be involved with a pro league in China.

“That would be a separate league that would be NBA-affiliated or NBA-sponsored, but it would be independent,” Stern said in August. “For a very long time to come it would be at a lower scale than the NBA. But as the sport develops in China, and as more players around the world recognize the opportunities of playing in China, we see that league growing and strengthening.”


Stern plans to travel to China this week to watch the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors play two exhibition games, including the first-ever game played in Guangzhou on Wednesday and in Beijing on Saturday.

Neither Leiweke nor Stern would give a timetable when construction on the arenas would start or when they would open.

Both have been encouraged by the Chinese government, sports ministry and CBA in the new venture. “They’ve been very supportive of these efforts,” Stern said.