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Chinese tourists paid $10,000 and made a vacation out of Kobe Bryant’s last game

Chinese spend big on Kobe Bryant trip
Members of a Chinese tour group in L.A. to watch Kobe Bryant’s last NBA game pose for pictures with Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell at an event Tuesday at USC.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In the hours before Kobe Bryant’s last game, they dined with Rick Fox, shot jumpers with D’Angelo Russell and posed for photos with Bryant himself.

For the Chinese tourists who paid as much as $10,000 for the privilege, the vacation package provided exclusive access to current and former Lakers they’ve come to idolize.

Chinese tourists already spend more than any other national group abroad: $215 billion last year. But in a country where basketball now rivals soccer as the most popular sport — and where Bryant is almost a god-like figure — the frenzy over attending his final game has shown that Chinese tourists are ready to spend heavily on vacations centered around major events rather than just general sightseeing trips.

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“For so long, we looked to China as a mega-opportunity and now we’re seeing actual customers,” said Robert Tuchman, an executive at talent agency CAA’s Premium Experience hospitality unit that helped organize the Bryant tour.

For the talent agents who put together the junket and the athletes who offered their time, it was a chance to develop relationships — and build a brand — with some of China’s biggest spenders.

“You just have two really interested peoples who want to work together,” Tuchman said.

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When the Lakers take on the Jazz on Wednesday and cap off Bryant’s 20-year career, “there will be a lot of Chinese faces in the stands,” said Ian Yang, vice president of Beijing-based Irena International, another organizer.

The NBA expects 24 members of Chinese media organizations to be on-site. The game will be broadcast live in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong by eight media groups, including CCTV and Tencent, the nation’s largest digital platform.

Demand for tickets is as high as a Lakers championship game, with courtside prices at $26,500, according to Barry Rudin of reseller Barry’s Tickets.

The CAA-Irena group saw some of the most sought-after tickets for the Bryant trip sell out in a week. Prices started in the low thousands of dollars, affordable for much of China’s middle class, Yang said. Higher-priced packages came with better seats at Staples Center. Some in the group had already bought tickets for the game and booked hotels months before, but paid for the access to players.

“It’s a very interesting piece of sports tourism that speaks volumes about the Lakers brand over the years and Kobe’s international appeal,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

Most of the tourists got into town Monday night, starting the trip with a rooftop buffet dinner at Perch in downtown Los Angeles where they heard Fox and former Chicago Bulls star Jalen Rose discuss what it was like being on the court with Bryant.

On Tuesday afternoon came the highlight of the trip: Bryant stopped by the Millennium Biltmore hotel downtown, where the group is staying, to answer questions, pose for pictures and sign autographs. He’d agreed to 35 minutes, but stayed about an hour, according to fans.

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Qian Wong, a student at Oxford Brookes University, said he got his Lakers hat autographed while wishing Bryant a happy retired life.

“He said, ‘I appreciate it,’” Wong, 25, recalled, excited to have exchanged words with a man he’s revered since middle school.

The NBA and China have had a strong relationship for decades, but the sport has taken off there since 2004, when the NBA started playing annual exhibition games in China and an increasing number of games were broadcast or streamed.

China’s own basketball league, which has been legitimized by the play of former NBA stars such as Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady, has kept fans thinking about basketball. Also providing a boost was Chinese big man Yao Ming’s career with the Houston Rockets.

But before age caught up with him, Bryant was the NBA’s dominant force and most recognizable face, helping lead the Lakers to four conference championships and two titles between 2004 and 2010. He became an icon for China — thanks in part to his efforts to maintain a relationship with the country’s 300 million basketball fans.

Bryant has held training camps in China, embarked on fan engagement tours and learned some conversational Mandarin phrases, all of which has helped to create an “authentic connection” to Chinese fans, said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Last year, Bryant provided pre-game and post-game analysis for the NBA Finals on Chinese broadcaster Sina Sports. He has signed a deal with Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba to develop Kobe-branded products and a social media platform for Chinese youth to connect with him. When he announced his retirement to NBA fans in November, he shared the note with his 4 million followers on the Chinese social media service Weibo.

Bryant has steered his Chinese stardom into income, starring in ads for the Smart car, Lenovo and other brands. And he tours China every summer for Nike. Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka of Landmark Sports, didn’t respond to a request to comment about the Chinese ventures.

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But the opportunities for American celebrities to become famous in China is one of the key reasons why CAA is hoping to secure more customers from China for its hospitality business.

“Individuals, athletes and talent are their own brands,” Tuchman said. “For them to be in front of China and mingle with business leaders in this market is incredible.”

CAA’s Premium Experience group normally offers its stars for paid meetings with tech firms, consumer product companies and other Fortune 500 businesses. But people in China have become hungry to take advantage of similar events over the last year, Tuchman said.

CAA had about 30 Chinese people among its group of 2,000 VIPs at the Super Bowl. Last week, an additional 30 or so people from China attended the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.

Although most CAA efforts with China have focused on sports, the firm’s hope is to eventually expand to celebrity chef experiences, fashion events and other opportunities that leverage more than just CAA’s 1,000 athletes, coaches and broadcasters.

On Tuesday, the tour group spent two hours on a practice basketball court at USC with Russell, the Lakers’ rookie guard, and teammate Julius Randle — both of whom are represented by CAA.

Rich Marcucci, who’s coached players including Bryant, Kevin Durant and Lamar Odom over more than 30 years, led the tourists — mostly men in their 20s and 30s — through dribbling and shooting drills. He needed an assist from Betty Zhou, who hosts a weekly NBA program on Chinese television, to translate instructions into Mandarin.

Even then, it took a few tries to get one shooting drill organized and Russell threw his hands up in the air, with thumbs up, to show they finally succeeded.

During three-minute games between teams of five, Randle and Russell offered pep talks and kudos for nice passes. After taking his turn on the court, a sweaty Ping An, 38, said he was glad he bought into experiencing more than just Wednesday’s matchup.

“It’s amazing,” An said. “I love this game, what can I say.”

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Times staff writer Samantha Masunaga contributed to this report.

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