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NBA in China
Reuters
Alive and kicking.
BASKETBALL DIPLOMACY

Half a billion people in China watched the NBA’s latest season

By Jane Li

There is at least one corner of the China-US trade map that appears to be unscathed amid their ongoing trade tensions.

Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind the ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, announced today (July 29) that it will renew a five-year partnership with the US National Basketball Association (NBA) until 2025 to offer live-streaming, video-on-demand services and other league content cross its platforms in China. The value of the deal was not announced, but Lanxiong Sports, an online Chinese sports news channel, said (in Chinese) the number could be $1.5 billion, compared with the $500 million the tech giant spent for its previous five-year-partnership with NBA to exclusively stream the games online starting in 2015.

Tencent didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Part of Tencent’s motivation to spend what might be three times more money for the rights can be traced to the significant increase in the number of NBA viewers in the country. Around 490 million people, more than one-third of the Chinese population of 1.3 billion, watched the basketball league’s latest 2018-19 season games on Tencent-affiliated platforms. The number was nearly triple that of the 2014-15 season, right before the Tencent-NBA streaming partnership began. More than 21 million viewers watched the sixth game of the NBA finals, in which the Toronto Raptors pulled off their first tournament victory, making it the most-watched NBA game ever in China on digital platforms, according to Tencent, now the largest international partner of NBA.

The actual NBA viewership in China is even bigger than the announced figures. While Tencent has the exclusive rights to live-stream the games online, the league has struck partnerships with other Chinese companies to grant them licensing rights to use other NBA content.

Among them is ByteDance, the parent company of short-video streaming app Tik Tok, which signed an agreement (in Chinese) with the NBA last November to publish short videos such as game highlights and behind-the-scenes clips on Tik Tok and two other of its platforms. Offline, CCTV 5, the sports channel of the Chinese national broadcaster CCTV, has the exclusive rights to broadcast the games live on television.

Thanks to the large number of viewers, NBA has become the most popular sports league in China, with players like Kobe Bryant having over eight million (in Chinese) followers on social media platform Weibo. Avid fans have also given the players a whole host of nicknames, such as “Emperor James” (詹皇, zhān huáng) for LeBron James, or “Love God” (爱神, àishén) for Kevin Love.