When the NBA preseason game in Beijing between the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets went into overtime Wednesday night, Chinese fans in Beijing’s MasterCard Center stood up with excitement. But instead of cheering for the Kings’ Omri Capssi -- whose three-pointer tied the game as time ticked down -- many in the stands started to chant, “KG! KG! KG!”
With five added minutes of overtime, the fans were hoping for a chance to see Nets’ star Kevin Garnett in action. But their wish was not granted by Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who kept the 38-year-old former NBA all-star off the court for the entire game. Still, the Nets’ bench players made a 17-5 run in overtime, helping their team beat the Kings 129-117.
Since 2004, the NBA has held preseason games in China – giving Chinese fans their only chance to watch a live game with their favorite American stars. Much has changed in the least decade – the 18,000-seat MasterCard Center wasn’t even built in 2004, for example. And in recent years, more and more NBA stars have found second acts in China: Beijing’s home basketball team, the Ducks, has won to two championships in the last three years -- thanks in no small part to former New York Knicks player Stephon Marbury.
For many Chinese baskeball fans, the excitement of seeing an NBA game is still there. But with Chinese fans becoming more mature and more knowledgeable about basketball, many are becoming more demanding – and the preseason games can’t necessarily wow the crowds here quite as much as they used to.
Ticket scalpers found this year’s matchup between the lackluster Kings and Nets didn’t command the same sky-high prices as previous games featuring the L.A. Lakers or Miami Heat.
Moreover, with Yao Ming’s retirement from the NBA in 2011, Chinese fans accustomed to rooting for the Houston Rockets have lost a “home team” to cheer for in the league. And the lockout in the summer of 2011 delayed the start of the 2011-12 NBA season. In that shortened season with only 66 games, the number of NBA games broadcast on state-run China Central Television dropped from four games a week to two.
The NBA, meanwhile, has also struggled with its retail strategy in China. When the league lured Tim Chen from Microsoft in 2007 to become its chief executive in China, it had ambitious plans to expand its retail network in the country. Chen told Chinese press in 2008 that he planned to build 50 NBA stores in China in three years.
But by the time Chen left NBA China in 2010, the league had to rethink its business strategy and closed many retail stores in China, focusing more on selling its merchandise through its online store.
Now, Kings’ lead owner Vivek Ranadive sees the Internet as a key avenue of exploration moving forward. The India-born Silicon Valley tycoon led the purchase of the Kings last year for $535 million and during the team’s trip this week met with executives at Chinese Internet companies like Sina and Tencent.
“He’s meeting with all the tech-minded people … I think everyone understands how important live sports are, so there’s a lot of interest in partnering with the NBA now to grow the brand together,” said Chris Granger, the Kings’ president during halftime at Wednesday’s game.
NBA owners and marketers are looking to court fans like 31-year-old Chang Xiaoxu. “This is my first time watching an NBA game in person,” said Chang, wearing the No. 8 jersey of the Nets’ Deron Williams. Chang spent $523 for his seat three rows from courtside. “I think all the NBA stars are really professional. As long as they’re on the court, they’ll take the game very seriously, even if it’s just a preseason game.”
Williams didn’t disappoint Chang in the game. His four straight crossovers against the Kings’ Ramon Sessions early in the third quarter elicited exclamations of “Oh!” and “Ah!” from the crowd and he finished with an artful layup over Sessions’ extended arms.
Zhao Yan, 24, attended his first NBA game in Beijing 10 years ago, when he was still a middle school student. “That game left me a deep impression because Yao Ming played for the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings had another Chinese player, Liu Wei,” Zhao recalled Wednesday night. “I always come to NBA China Games as long as I’m in the city when the game is played.”
Zhao came to the game with his girlfriend, who said her favorite star was Garnett. Previously, Zhao has spent as much as $816 for a seat, when NBA superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James came to Beijing to play.
Wednesday’s face-off between the Nets and the Kings marked the 18th preseason game ever in China. The league first brought Yao Ming and his Houston Rockets to play against the Sacramento Kings in China in 2004.
“In the 10 years since we first played a game in Shanghai, we’ve seen enormous growth of the game of basketball here in China,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver at a news conference in Shanghai on Sunday before a game between the Nets and the Kings. “Today, the China Basketball Assn. estimates that more than 300 million people play basketball in China, which of course is the entire size of the U.S. population.”
Peja Stojakovic, who played in both games in 2004 for the Kings, was invited to come back to China this year along with former Laker Vlade Divac.
“Many [Chinese fans] even can remember the Sacramento team from 10 years ago,” Stojakovic said before the Kings’ practice in Beijing on Tuesday. “In the last 10 years, fans in China have become more knowledgeable about the game. They recognize more players, not only the superstars. We appreciate their support and we understand how much NBA means here in China.”
Chinese reporter Zhang Yi, who started covering basketball for Sohu Sports in 2004, suggested that the NBA could attract more attention from Chinese fans if the league brought more competitive regular season games to China.
“Most of the reporters I know from 10 years ago don’t even bother to come to cover preseason games like this anymore,” Zhang said.
“It would be best if the NBA could bring regular season games to China,” he added, “although I understand that logistically, it’s very hard for the players to travel such a long distance during the regular season and adjust to the time difference.”
Tommy Yang and Julie Makinen in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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