Sports

NBA wants to reach more basketball fans in China. Tencent and Bytedance may help provide the answer

Key Points
  • The National Basketball Association is targeting China's mammoth 1.3 billion people, and working with Chinese media platforms to reach a larger audience.
  • Beyond a five-year digital partnership signed with Chinese tech giant Tencent in 2015, the NBA has also worked with other platforms from the likes of Bytedance, China Mobile and Alibaba in the last year.
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How the NBA is taking over China

The National Basketball Association is not resting on its laurels despite reaching an audience of more than 600 million people in China.

In China, there were 640 million people who watched "some element of NBA content," said Derek Chang, CEO of NBA China, who was talking about viewership during the 2017-2018 season.

But Chang is aiming for more.

"There's a billion-three people in the country, so that should be our target," Chang told CNBC referring to China's 1.3 billion population. "We've had a great history in China, basketball's been played in China for many, many years," he said at the APOS 2019 in Bali, Indonesia on Wednesday.

The league's history in China harks back to the late 1980s when its commissioner at that time, David Stern, met state run media network CCTV to get their games on air.

"I've been here for a year and again, I was amazed myself even though I knew the stats, at just how popular it is because you can actually sort of feel it in the streets," he told CNBC's Nancy Hungerford. "The average fan is passionate, very knowledgeable and they just love the NBA."

One way of reaching more people in China is through the country's domestic media platforms. In 2015, the NBA signed a five-year digital partnership with Tencent to distribute NBA content on the Chinese tech giant's channels.

"Tencent has been a phenomenal partner," Chang said. "They have invested significantly in the product ... in our brand, in the league."

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Tencent has been a 'phenomenal' partner: NBA China

But it doesn't stop there. The NBA has already been looking at other possible distribution platforms.

Last year, the league partnered with other tech companies such as Bytedance, China Mobile and Alibaba to "test what the capabilities of each of these platforms are," Chang said.

"The landscape changes so quickly," he added, with the distribution landscape being fragmented at present.

"If you're not kind of present, you may be gone in 5 years," he cautioned.

Commenting on whether to make its content available for free, or putting it behind a paywall, Chang said it's about "finding that right balance" and "making sure you're not just trying to ... monetize for the sake of monetization but really to grow, sort of, the sport."

At the same time, he acknowledged, some of the league's team owners paid a "significant amount of money for their team," making it difficult to ignore the commercial aspect of the business.

— CNBC's Uptin Saiidi contributed to this report.

Correction: This article was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Derek Chang, CEO of NBA China.