There are about 300 million reasons why the Miami Heat traveled halfway around the world this week to play two exhibition games.
That's how many people are estimated to play basketball in China, and they all figure in the NBA 's plan for global sports domination.
The games against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday in Beijing and Sunday in Shanghai won't count in the season standings, but they're far from meaningless. The NBA is orchestrating its sixth China Games tour to enhance its largest market outside the United States. The Heat and some of their players hope to cash in on the opportunity as well.
The trip coincides with Heat guard Dwyane Wade entering a sneaker deal with Chinese shoemaker Li-Ning. Wade was tightlipped about his plans before the trip but is expected to participate in a formal media launch with Li-Ning on Wednesday.
"We live in a global world now. Globalization is real. This is just an extension of it," said Heat forward Shane Battier, who endorses Peak, a rival sports shoe and apparel firm in China. "There is great potential because people love basketball in China. This is not a false enthusiasm. These people are passionate about the game."
LeBron James said he has seen the passions intensify in each of his eight previous trips to China, as an Olympian and on promotional tours for Nike. Teammate Chris Bosh saw it when he was mobbed while eating at a burger joint during the 2008 Beijing Olympics (check out the video on YouTube).
It is not just reserved just for the stars. Battier was primarily known as Yao Ming's teammate on the Houston Rockets when he began making tours in China for Peak in 2005. Appearances in some cities had to be canceled because there wasn't enough security to handle the crowds.
The Heat expects a similarly effusive reception — with better security — this week. Team executives are coming with an agenda of their own, with meetings planned with a number of potential corporate sponsors. The franchise already has a deal with Peak, and in December, it entered into a high-profile partnership with Tsingtao beer.
"It's an opportunity for us to bring Chinese companies back to Miami. That's really what we're setting out to do," said Eric Woolworth, Heat president of business operations. "About 250 million people have seen the Heat play either on television or on streaming through their computers in the last couple of years. So we've made a big impact over there. I think there are some real opportunities for us to do more."
But this is foremost the NBA's gig — they're footing most of the bill for the trip, Woolworth said. The league has been cultivating interests in China since 1979, when the then-Washington Bullets made a goodwill tour there soon after the countries normalized relations.
Interest in the NBA soared in China after Yao was drafted first overall by the Rockets in 2002, and familiarity grew as the league's top stars played in the Beijing Games. Also in 2008, the league established a beachhead with NBA China, backed by $253 million from five key investors, including Disney/ESPN.
The grand vision Commissioner David Stern floated of an NBA-style league in China hasn't gained traction, though. A New York Times story earlier this year pointed to missed opportunities and misjudgment by NBA China.
But if the course has veered in the tricky navigation of doing business inside the Chinese state, it is hard to argue with how the league and its players have been embraced by the people. Even with last season delayed by the lockout, television viewership was up 21 percent on CCTV, and video streams increased by 58.9 percent. The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon provided an unexpected boost and helped fill the void of Yao's retirement.
The NBA's Chinese New Year celebration in late January, with 21 games broadcast over eight days, including two from Miami, reached 96 million viewers on television and online. The league is a juggernaut on Chinese microblogs, with 52 million followers.
"NBA popularity is at an all-time high. It is the No. 1-followed league in the country. We've got a very robust business and operation there," said Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International.
Further indication: "NBA" was recently added as an entry to the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary – over the objections of some scholars.
The NBA reports sales of its merchandise in China has grown 800 percent over the past five years. James' jersey is the No. 3 best-seller behind Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose.
As for the possibility of operating a league in competition with China's own, Ueberroth said, "We don't have any immediate plans. For now our focus is very much working to grow the game at a grass-roots level on youth and coaching development."
NBA China has partnered with Yao on a youth development program, including a school for elite players, and working with the Chinese Basketball Association has trained more than 580 coaches. Meanwhile, three NBA-caliber arenas have been developed in China