US Colleges Head to China to Grow Basketball Fan Base

Forty years ago, former basketball star Bill Walton made a decision he still regrets today. His UCLA college team was invited to play an exhibition game in China in 1973, the year it won its second national title with Walton, and he decided not to go. The rest of the team then stayed home, too.

"I said I didn't want to come," he said. "I didn't know any better. I was wrong."
On Saturday, the men's basketball teams from the University of Washington and University of Texas will do what Walton chose not to: play a game in China, halfway around the world from their college campuses.
It won't just be an exhibition, either. They'll contest the first-ever regular season college basketball game in China, the first of perhaps many for U.S. university teams as they try to tap into a new market for their sports -- and their schools -- in the world's second-biggest economy.
"The opportunity that these young people have to come to this country ... (it's) an opportunity that I sadly turned down," said Walton, who will provide commentary for ESPN's live broadcast of Saturday's game in the U.S. "It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life."
Hopes are high on both sides that this opportunity will lead to a much deeper cooperation than anyone could have imagined just a decade ago, let alone in 1973.
In the Pac-12 Conference, which organized the game at Shanghai's Mercedes Benz Arena, officials have spent the past few years trying to find a way to build on the well-known academic reputations of their schools in China, as well as the Chinese love of basketball, to build a fan base for their sports programs.
And on the Chinese side, the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group has jumped on board as a way of acquiring content for its brand new sports platform and, as founder Jack Ma put it at the company's headquarters in Hangzhou on Tuesday, to help young Chinese learn the value of playing -- and working -- on a team.
"China is pretty good at the single sports. Ping pong is very good, but we think China should focus more on team sports -- basketball, soccer and volleyball," Ma said. "The world is very connected and China needs to work like a team with the (rest of the) world. If we cannot make our kids focus on that, it'll be terrible in the future."
The curiosity was evident as young Alibaba employees took a break from their last-minute preparations for Singles Day -- China's biggest online shopping day on Wednesday -- to line the glass wall at the company's basketball court and watch the Texas basketball players sprint up and down the court in a spirited workout.
Still, the process will likely take time. The NBA has had success bringing preseason games to China over the past 11 years, but it remains to be seen if Chinese fans will have the same passion for U.S. collegiate sports.
"NCAA is not known in China. Period," said Joe Tsai, Alibaba's executive vice chairman, referring to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. "That's because in China, when you go to college, have a normal college academic experience, they don't emphasize sports. If you're an athlete, they separate you when you are very young and you're on a separate track."
Part of Alibaba's motivation for joining forces with the Pac-12 Conference is to change this mentality in China.
"Sports is part of education," Tsai said. "You don't separate sports from your academics because you learn so much value from sports."
The Pac-12, meanwhile, is taking a long-term view on promoting its teams across the Pacific. The conference began taking men's and women's basketball teams to China for summer exhibitions several years ago and last year streamed 27 college basketball games in China through a partnership with LeTV, a Beijing-based online video company.
Last month, the conference announced a deal with LeTV to start streaming college football games in China this season, as well, along with Chinese commentary.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said it was actually retired Chinese NBA star Yao Ming who first suggested bringing a regular-season basketball game to China.
"He's very passionate about this idea of exposing the U.S. system here," Scott said. "There are a lot of exhibitions over here. ... What would really be intriguing to people is to see top-caliber NCAA basketball teams going at each other in a regular-season game and that was the inspiration for the idea."
A second regular-season game is already planned for next November, also in partnership with Alibaba.
For the Washington and Texas players, many of whom have never been abroad before, the cultural experience alone has made the trip worth it. At Alibaba headquarters on Tuesday, the players toured the sprawling campus in golf carts and shook hands with Ma and Tsai and presented them with team jerseys. They're getting a chance to practice their Mandarin, as well.
"I've learned a couple words -- they taught us `xie xie' (thank you) and `ni hao' (hello)," Texas guard Javan Felix said. "Just being able to communicate with the people here and seeing the smiles on their faces when we talk to them, or say something in their language, is cool to see."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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