The NBA is China's most popular sports league. Here's how it happened

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The NBA is China's most popular sports league. Here's how it happened

  • Here in the world's most populous country, basketball is a massive business and the National Basketball Association's fan base has grown.
  • The NBA is the most followed sports league on social media with more than 150 million followers.
  • Its popularity on social media has changed the way organizations like the e Philadelphia 76ers now market themselves in China.

It was the week before the start of this year's National Basketball Association season.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks walked onto a basketball court before the game began and a loud applause greeted him as he took his courtside seat.

But Cuban was not in Dallas, Texas. He was in Shenzhen, China for a preseason game where the Mavericks competed against the Philadelphia 76ers in front of tens of thousands of Chinese fans.

Here in the world's most populous country, basketball is a massive business and the NBA's fan base has grown.

It was the first time the two teams were playing in China, but it was the 26th game to take place in the country, since the NBA began bringing games there in 2004.

"If there's a second center of the basketball universe, it's China," Scott O'Neil, CEO of the 76ers told CNBC.

The NBA has grown to become China's most popular sports league. It's formed partnerships with some of the country's biggest tech companies and opened NBA stores and new experience concept stores inside malls.

According to the league, more than 300 million people in China play basketball. Meanwhile, the NBA is the most followed sports league on social media with more than 150 million followers.

"The world is getting flatter and flatter. You can interchange someone from Philadelphia and Shanghai, you can rotate them, and no one will know the difference," O'Neil said. "We listen to the same music, we watch the same basketball, we follow the same trends, it's pretty incredible."

The NBA's history in China dates back to the late 1980s when its commissioner at that time, David Stern, met with China's state run television network CCTV to get games on air.

By 1994, all the NBA finals were shown live in China.

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Lintao Zhang | Getty Images

Chinese legend Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002. More than 200 million people watched his first game, which took place against Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers.

In 2008, the NBA China organization was officially founded.

The league has in recent years formed strategic partnerships with some of China's tech companies. In 2015, NBA and Tencent formed a reported $500 million deal which allows the WeChat parent to carry its games and highlights.

Another deal with Weibo— a popular Chinese microblogging platform with more than 400 million monthly active users — allows NBA to deliver game highlights, player interviews, photos, stats, and behind-the-scene events.

"Social media is slightly different here than the U.S," said Derek Chang, the chief executive of NBA China. "People watch more on phones and big screens there," he added referring to the difference between fans in China and the U.S.

According to Mailman Group's NBA Red Card 2018 report, Kobe Bryant is the most popular NBA player in China, while Jeremy Lin is the country's most popular current player.

NBA's popularity on social media has changed the way that organizations like the 76ers now market themselves in China.

"It gives us such a competitive advantage for an organization like the Philadelphia 76ers, because we can create content and distribute it really quickly and in a lot of different ways," O'Neal said.

O'Neal said he's already hired Mandarin-speaking staff and plans to hire up to six more employees to distribute content on Chinese social media platforms.

"It's a cultural revolution and the Chinese fans seem to be very interested in what is new, interesting and relevant and the NBA players are new, interesting and relevant."