By Rui Zhong

“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” In the film adaptation of Moneyball, a statistics-savvy general manager puts together an Oakland Athletics team from players that other clubs missed out on, cashing in on bargain bin players with potential. As strategies, scouts, and memoranda of understanding swim through China’s sporting scene, this dream-big attitude can also summarize the optimism of American professional sporting leagues and Chinese joint venture partners.  

America’s men’s professional sports leagues have long entertained an interest in accessing China’s sports fans’ wallets and young players’ talents. While the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB are all seeking to expand in the Chinese market, only the NBA has any real purchase in the country at the moment. Basketball has taken to China’s markets and imaginations easily and China can brag that it has had a homegrown star in Yao Ming. In contrast, the other three professional leagues still lag behind the NBA in terms of recognition and are still sketching out blueprints towards profitability.

In the quest for that profitability, outreach by sports leagues into a market that they have never known often operates in tiers. First come memoranda of understanding, which simply declare interest by both Chinese and American partners. Then there are exhibition games, for example, but beyond that, establishing a sports presence requires building out infrastructure. Outstanding challenges remain; for instance, hockey still needs to roll out the distribution of equipment, provide instruction and coaching resources, and integrate ball hockey into schools.

Today, the NHL’s plans include two 2018 exhibition games in Beijing and Shenzhen and it recognizes potential in the upcoming 2022 Beijing Olympics to drum up interest in a more commercialized, consolidated presence. While Commissioner Bill Daly hedged on more firm commitments on the league’s part, superfans on the ground in China might kickstart hockey fever all on their own. Keg and can factory magnate and eager sports investor Zhou Yunjie is among the Chinese partners that could make the NHL’s dreams a reality. In addition to lending strategic support for the exhibition games, he also envisioned a truck tour within China that showcased exhibits explaining league history. Video streaming deals in the works with social media giant Tencent and analog broadcaster CCTV could potentially bring live hockey into the devices of China’s sports watching markets.

As of right now, however, one major American sporting league really has bragging rights to player recognition by the average Chinese millennial: the NBA. From Tony Parker to Jeremy Lin, its players are already selling their likenesses to television commercials and fast food campaigns. Out of the four major men’s sporting leagues, basketball has an advantage in that it needs no cultural introduction to most Chinese. Where football, baseball, and ice hockey have yet to break free of being seen as niche sports, basketball in the Chinese imagination runs far so back in history that Zhou Enlai himself was said to have endorsed its characteristics of teamwork and promotion of physical fitness. Players are so recognizable that discussion boards and chats teem with a plethora of creative nicknames that reference their physical appearance and styles of play. The league itself has capitalized on this recognition and worked to make video streaming of games a priority, inking a five-year, $500 million deal with Tencent to allow for exclusive broadcasts on the tech giant’s platforms.

Like many phenomena within Chinese culture and entertainment, fandom develops organically around athletes not just because of their talent, but because there are characteristics to their style and the story quality of their career arcs that Chinese fans can connect to. While Chinese basketball players have the leg up in earning recognition and thereby driving the popularity of the NBA in China, the same trend is nascent in the other major sports leagues searching for that entree into the Chinese market.  

Outside of China’s big cities, scouts are searching for baseball talent to bring to the American big leagues. Though training camps are an initial step of a lengthy investment that may or may not turn out a major league superstar, there is no doubt that Chinese media and endorsement deals will follow any athlete that can make it in America. Likewise, fans will connect any breakthrough athlete as not only a thrilling figure to follow, but also a representative of China’s future in international sporting. National pride is a big part of sports followings in China – sometimes in a positive light, and sometimes sparking controversy. The 2016 Rio Olympics showcased both instances. Fu Yuanhui, a female competitive swimmer, went viral when she celebrated her time enthusiastically in a post-race video: “58.95?! I thought I did 59 seconds! Wow! Am I so fast? I am very pleased!” In another case, it led to the furious dousing of an Australian Olympic male swimmer’s Instagram page in snake emojis after a heated dispute with a Chinese competitor.

For many American sports enterprises hoping to break into the Chinese market to stream games, acquire fanbases, and spur international following, organic fandom can be challenging to build. Fandom can be fickle and Chinese consumers may take some time to win over.

A few years back, I browsed a store selling Major League Baseball merchandise in Wuhan, China. I immediately noticed that its glossy signage and promotional images displayed no baseball players. The store’s merchandise shelves had none of the jerseys adorned with ballplayers’ numbers that I could find at any ballpark or sporting goods store. Instead, this store served a single purpose—to sell officially-licensed New York Yankees clothing, and only Yankees-branded clothing—to style-minded Chinese youth.

Soon enough, Chinese sports leagues of football, hockey, and baseball may have their own famous faces, adored by Chinese fans – but at the moment, there’s a long way to go before China falls in love with the athletes that take the field in the Bronx wearing those same Yankees logos.

Rui Zhong is the Program Assistant for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.

Posted by Rui Zhong