Alisports launches ambitious plan to revolutionise Chinese college basketball

Yao Ming is an outspoken supporter of creating greater connections between China University Basketball Association and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). — Reuters file pic
Yao Ming is an outspoken supporter of creating greater connections between China University Basketball Association and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). — Reuters file pic

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SHANGHAI, Nov 13 — Broadcast live to millions, two teams packed with future basketball stars battle it out on court, watched by a near capacity Chinese crowd, enthralled by the seductive razzmatazz of US sports culture.

This exciting spectacle is exactly what was seen at Shanghai’s Baoshan Stadium on Saturday November 10 where Pacific-12 (Pac-12) conference side Cal-Berkeley lost 76-59 to Ivy League team Yale in their first game of the season.

In the fourth edition of the annual Pac-12 China Game, which brings a regular NCAA season match to China, presentation was slick. The crowd was a lively mix of local basketball fans and American supporters, some of whom had travelled from the United States especially for the game.

Organisers of the event spared no expense shipping the entire basketball setup to China for the event, including cheerleaders, players, staff, officials from both sides, and even US sports anchors to commentate on the match.

Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming was courtside to take in the action and fans and even journalists clamoured to take selfies with the 2,26 m former Houston Rockets star.

Meanwhile the unmistakable urban boom of Hip Hop blasted from the speakers of the arena as an MC hyped up the crowd with a series of shouts and delivered a lesson in audience participation. Cheerleaders excited those present with impressively choreographed dance moves, whilst a crowd cam zoomed in on unsuspecting spectators who burst into smiles upon suddenly spotting themselves on the big screen above the centre of the court.

In short, the occasion was as authentic a representation of college basketball as China has seen. And for Alisports, showcasing the US college sports model in front of a live Chinese audience is their latest step in an ambitious plan to revolutionise the China University Basketball Association (CUBA) league competition and elevate it to the same level as its US counterpart.

Alisports, a division of e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently announced a seven-year cooperation deal worth almost USD 100 million with the Federation of University Sports of China (FUSC), a body which supervises inter-collegiate competitions in the country. The cooperation deal spans a wide range of areas from marketing and sponsorships, to broadcast rights, to social media projects.

Yao Ming was also present at the China-US University Sports & Education Summit, last week in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. As an outspoken supporter of creating greater connections between CUBA and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Yao’s presence alongside senior officials from the FUSC and the Ministry of Education was a sincere demonstration of the determination of all parties involved to improve college basketball in China.

At the summit, Zhang Dazhong, CEO of Alisports, spoke in support of Yao’s efforts to create more linkage between China’s basketball organisations.

“School is separated from sport clubs and teams. There is no place for schools in the building system of athletes. I think Yao Ming has the right idea of opening the door of the CBA to talented student athletes,” he said, adding, “Right now, CUBA only plays a very small role in sending talented players to the CBA – very few players from CUBA get to play in the CBA.”

In recent years the Chinese government has invested heavily in improving its sports, both to improve the performances of its professional clubs and national teams, and also from a social perspective, to improve the well-being of the population by encouraging them to be more active and enjoy sport as a shared activity.

However the process has not been smooth with pressures such as excess homework for school children leading many parents to be reluctant to let their kids spend free time on sports such as basketball. This in turn has led to a renewed push from the authorities to introduce more sports into schools.

Zhang Dazhong said supporting such grassroots development was also something that Alisports was dedicated to, but said structural changes in the way sports are organised and run were necessary.

“The Chinese Basketball Association has opened the door to student athletes, the next step is for schools to figure out how to better connect with the CBA. I think raising the overall competitive level of campus sport is the key challenge for the Ministry of Education.”

Zhang Dazhong said he believed the sport industry had a lot of potential on campus, but would have to overcome some misunderstandings when it came to the relationship between industry and education.

“People think campuses shouldn’t be commercialised, and that there’s already a lot of sports equipment for students on the campus and that campus sport already receives a lot of attention,” he said, adding, “But in my opinion, the misunderstanding lies in the fact that the existing resources and investment in campus sports don’t match what the students want.”

Zhang Dazhong also said that Chinese college game formats were not so interesting for sponsors and this was holding back campus sport in the country.

He held up the example of the NCAA as something Alisports were looking to learn from. “There’s a lot of driving forces behind the operation, like sports management corporations, agents, sport organisations, sponsors, and so on,” he said, adding, “Despite involvement from different parties, it’s not over-commercialised. It helps to make campus sport attractive and offer some of the best games in the US”

A common theme in Chinese sports are problems concerning how they are managed and regulated, particularly from the point of view of commercial exploitation. Zhang emphasised that opening up the management of college sports beyond local educational departments was an important step in bringing the sports closer to society and making it easier for parents of students, and anyone else, to get involved in college sports and to follow it closely.

He offered a glimpse into Alisports vision for Chinese University Basketball. “Gathering all resources from society and putting them into campus sport will help to create a general understanding and respect for operating it in an commercial way, and I believe this is where campus sport in China is going.”

The game between Cal-Berkley and Yale was the climax of a week of US-China basketball events which included a range of cultural exchange visits involving the visiting US student players, a basketball summit and a match between a joint Beijing-Suzhou University side and Yale Bulldogs which resulted in a 93-84 win for the Americans.

Instrumental in the project is Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, who as Taiwanese-Canadian, alumnus of Yale University, and having recently acquired a 49 per cent stake in NBA side Brooklyn Nets, finds himself standing squarely at a bustling crossroads of US-China-Taiwan relations and collegiate basketball. Tsai’s personal role became all the more relevant as it was revealed at a press conference before the match that around 30 basketball delegates from Taiwan and Macau were in attendance at the Cal-Berkeley vs Yale match.

Speaking before the game, Tsai spoke with conviction about the wider benefits of collegiate basketball to contribute to improving international relations in the region. “I think it’s important to have this kind of cultural exchange between Taiwan and mainland, particularly for sports and education,” Tsai said.

“Also I was speaking to one of the Berkley staff who said this was his first visit to China and that the country was nothing like he had imagined,” Tsai continued, “Everything he read about China has just been from US newspapers, so for this event to give people a chance to come here and see what China is really like, I think this is the most meaningful aspect of this co-operation.”

Tsai emphasised that Alisports were committed to bringing more exchanges on a wide range of educational, sporting and business levels, via its support for Chinese University Basketball.

Adding to Tsai’s comments, basketball has a vital role to play in improving US-China relations in general, FUSC president Xue Yanqing said, speaking at the same press event.

Xue Yanqing explained the importance of sport in breaking down barriers between different peoples, with the US and China’s shared love of Basketball making it an ideal channel for cultural exchange.

“Student sports exchange programs such as the China Pac 12 is the best method of improving mutual understanding on both sides,” said Xue Yanqing, adding, “Even although there is tension between the US and China right now, we are getting along very well in sport.”

Xue Yanqing went on to make the connection between sport and the history of international relations, referring to ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s. “Since the establishment of the China-US relationship, ping pong has played a role, well, now I think it is basketball’s turn and we believe this is the best way to strengthen friendship between us,” Xue Yanqing said.

Another central figure in the action packed US-Chinese basketball agenda was Cal guard James Zhao. The Shandong native played a translator role and was the focus of much local and US media attention as he led his teammates on a series of sightseeing tours around Shanghai, including a trip to the iconic Jade Temple in downtown Shanghai, and Disneyland. The players, most of whom well over 1,80 m tall, were a conspicuous and very friendly group as they made their way around the city as cultural ambassadors for the US.

“A lot of my teammates have not even left the USA before, so for me to be able to bring them back to China and show them the place and show them my culture has been something really special and worthwhile,” he said.

Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovic said the US basketball delegation had enjoyed a “phenomenal week of activities in China for Pac-12.”

Zaninovic explained that as part of Pac-12’s cooperation with Alisports, some 175 Pac-12 games would be shown live online in China via partner Youkou which was “Incredibly exciting for our future growth here.”

He also announced that the next stage of cooperation with the FUSC and Alisports would come in the shape of a 2019 Pac-12 China Game between Arizona State University and the University of Colorado. — AFP

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