“There’s always hope. That’s what basketball is about,” explained Matt Weston, the Australian founder of HRHoops and formerly Technical Director of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Weston is one of two basketball professionals AsianTalks spoke to this month, in order to learn more about how a metaphor for hope is now making inroads into Chinese cultural life.
According to both Weston and Beyer, basketball in China has come a long way. Matt Beyer in Beijing observed, “On any given day, there’s a good chance the people you are going to play in a pick-up game are wearing Jeremy Lin T-shirts,” alluding to the infectious wave of Linsanity that has gripped mainland Chinese since the last NBA season. But, as the conversation progressed, we also learned there’s much more to basketball in China than the wild success of Jeremy Lin.
(Editor’s Note: The audio component of this podcast is provided via a link at the end of this transcript.)
AsianTalks: Mr. Weston, you’ve worked at the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) in Beijing for several years. What’s your take on Western journalist observations of the CBA as a “basketball factory”? And Mr. Beyer — how would you compare the CBA to the NBA?
Beyer: One of the bigger differences between the two is the player development work that goes into both leagues. In the US it’s a very organic type of growth. You’ll see a lot of guys come into the game when they’re in high school. They’re already 15,16 years old. Certainly there are guys who have been doing it since they’re ten or eleven with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) leagues, but in China you get identified, join clubs, and start playing early. Then you’re on a different track than normal kids who are in school from 6:30 am everyday. There’s no chance for those kids to get inside the system.
Weston: I agree. The American system is the scholastic system, which helps support the education of people as well as the development of their sport. Matt Beyer is very correct — in China, kids as young as 12 or 13 are assigned to camps, exposure camps in America and signed up by a club and taken away from the family.
There’s a lot of differences when you try to teach kids. It’s a different coaching philosophy. That’s probably what China has not been that great at adapting to. They say, “This is how we want to teach kids,” and that almost comes through almost like the communist system that originated in Russia.
There’s also — almost no individualism in the coaching — which is definitely needed. At all ages.
AsianTalks: Everyone in China knows Nike, Adidas, and certainly these brands have made significant inroads into the Chinese market. Are there any Chinese sporting brands either of you have noticed that might make it big in the West?
Weston: Through my time with the CBA, the one with the most capture and exposure outside of China would be Li Ning. I think Li Ning is sold in parts of Europe and in Australia. They’re trying to get branded.
Speaking to some of the brand apparel companies, it sounds like they’re trying to associate themselves with big brands outside of China, to be able to build better credibility inside of China, rather than trying to sell their product. It’s a slow process in educating people about the quality they’re getting when it comes to China brands and products.
Beyer: I think Matt Weston is right on. Li Ning would definitely be my pick. They’ve made the overseas move a little bit faster. They’re a bit more systematic. All the apparel companies are going through tough times right now. Li Ning is making some strategic moves, including a re-organization. They kind of function like a listed company, a corporation, rather than a family-owned factory that started their own brand.
By the way, they just signed a five-year deal with the CBA. They’ll be involved in product development that includes apparel.
Weston: I spoke with Nike back in 2009, maybe early 2010, and they were concerned then because there’s a model of sponsorship among companies like themselves. They reasoned, “If we spend this much then we’ll make this much in sales.” But the Chinese were getting into a bidding war. And I know that really concerned Nike and some of the bigger brands because they had to throw their business model out. But such is competition I suppose.
AsianTalks: I’m now going to open up the floor to you to ask each other questions.
Weston: Matt — where do you see Beijing’s title defense going. Who do you see in the next season as a contender?
Beyer: I think (the) Beijing (Ducks) is going to keep going. They brought back Stephon Marbury, Randolph Morris. The other thing about Beijing that kind of excites me is they’re capitalizing on domestic traits. Players are getting smarter, there are more agents involved, so that they’re no longer signing these lifetime contracts. That’s a good thing.
The team also is — just so young — it’s really going to depend on the leadership, the opportunities that are going to be offered to these players. A team that’s getting better is Dongguan New Century Leopards in Guangdong. They’ve been devoting more money and resources into player development. They’ve also partnered with the NBA to develop a NBA-branded training center.