Paulo Kennedy: A basketball FTA in the making?


By Paulo Kennedy

As recently announced, the NBL has turned their general interest in greater involvement in the Asian region into the specific goal of having an NBL team based in China. 

If you think that’s a lofty and ambitious goal, you’re right.

The NBA and Euroleague have been tapping into the Chinese market for a number of years, but neither has taken this bold a step.

Everyone knows there is huge potential for all sorts of products in China because of its population of almost 1.4 billion, but it’s not until you travel there that you realise why it is a special market for basketball.

Last year, as a TV commentator at the FIBA Asia Championship in Changsha, I went for a walk through the university campus that was hosting the tournament and had an entourage of students follow me around just because I was involved with the tournament.

When gun Chinese point guard Guo Ailun briefly ducked into a walkway adjacent to the public area of the stadium to check the scores of another game, the pandemonium that spontaneously erupted was reminiscent of video clips from The Beatles’ heyday.

I was standing about five metres from Guo and I was almost crushed as people raced to get near him. What was impressive was how well the young man handled himself in that situation. While police rushed to disperse the crowd, Guo simply signed autographs and exchanged kind words, knowing the importance of his position as a national team player.

But the fans there love opposition players too. The oohs of the Chinese crowd when a visiting player does something even remotely special are quite unique in world basketball. A talented opposition player who handles himself with class can become a loved foe.

So the passion for the game is there, and the appetite for more basketball on top of the CBA and NBA is definitely there, with broadcasters already expressing strong interest in a Chinese NBL team should it eventuate.

The big question, of course, is how do you make something this audacious actually happen?

The first thing is you can’t try and transplant something foreign into China. This is a strongly nationalistic country, you have to make this team feel like their own.

The NBL’s own history tells that tale. The Singapore Slingers were effectively an Australian organisation dropped into another country and never got a foot hold. The New Zealand Breakers are a Kiwi organisation that has been embraced by an entire country.

The second thing is you can’t just be doing this just for yourself. As a nation, China is big into partnerships that benefit multiple parties, just look at the establishment of the BRICS organisation or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

It’s no different when it comes to basketball. The CBA loves hosting the NBA and Euroleague because their level of prestige helps promote basketball and the local product itself.

So what can the NBL offer?

Believe it or not, the New Zealand Breakers are probably our biggest carrot. The Tall Blacks are hugely respected in China from their many tours there and quality performances at successive world cups – they are one of just four countries to make the knockout stage of the past four world cups alongside Spain, Turkey and the USA.

CBA officials are well aware of the vital role the Breakers program has played in developing that national team, and the possibility of a Chinese team in the NBL producing similar benefits could persuade the CBA that this is indeed a two-way deal.

The model would look different to the Breakers, as the top Chinese players would still play in the CBA. However, perhaps the NBL team could be used as a development tool for their elite youngsters, whose performances in recent junior world championships have been impressive.

In Rio you will see Guo Ailun and exciting young centre Zhou Xi. In the CPA Australia NBL All Australian team series we saw 19-year-old wonder ‘kid’ Zou Yu Chen dominate inside and got a brief glimpse of junior world championship superstar Zhao Yan Hao.

Perhaps China’s best youngsters could spend a year on the NBL team immediately after their junior world championship experience to continue their development before returning to the CBA?

A season playing alongside a mix of quality Aussies, Kiwis, imports and a couple of veterans from China – in a high-level competition while experiencing Australian coaching – would be an invaluable experience, fast-tracking the development they would receive at home as teenagers.

Make no mistake, both Zhou Xi and Zou Yu Chen would have made an impact in the NBL as teenagers, and while it would have been more difficult for guards like Guo and Zhao, they could still have been contributors much like Mitch Norton and Jason Cadee were early in their careers.

This model would serve the purposes of aiding the development of China’s national team, exciting the Chinese public and adding quality talent to the NBL.

Whether that is the path this will head down I don’t know, that will be hammered out over the negotiating table, but whatever model is chosen, if it strategically helps Chinese basketball grow it will get support in high places.

Last year’s Asian champs reached a cumulative TV audience of 365 million people, more than double the Eurobasket, with almost 39 million Chinese watching their team beat the Philippines in the final.

Basketball in Asia has incredible potential, and uncorking that is a big priority for FIBA, the sport’s governing body.

Traditionally, the peak of international basketball has featured Europe, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and the USA, with occasional cameos from the likes of Puerto Rico and New Zealand.

If basketball is going to become a true powerhouse of world sport it needs a more diverse range of national teams being genuinely competitive, and that starts with basketball-mad countries like China and the Philippines, whose economy is currently growing faster than any other in Asia.

With Oceania joining Asia for the world cup qualifiers and the FIBA Asia Cup after the Rio Olympics, it would be disastrous for basketball in the region to have Australia and New Zealand as runaway winners year after year.

Once 2017 ticks around, Australia will be easily Asia’s highest-ranked and most successful national team. As the powerhouse, Australia and the NBL can become the vehicle for lifting the sport in the region.

Other ideas the NBL are considering are exchange programs where talented junior Chinese players come to Australia to study English, gain a cultural experience and train in the programs that have made our country a junior powerhouse in world basketball. They could also be embedded with NBL teams, or if talented enough on a roster as an Asian import.

In return, the CBA has expressed interest in Australian and New Zealand players being used as imports in their competition. The NBL made broadcasts of the 2015/16 season available to Chinese broadcasters and the respect for the talent of our players has risen substantially as a result.

No doubt the way our players performed in the final two games of the CPA Australia NBL All Australian series will have only reinforced that.

Similarly, the NBL have floated the idea of Chinese coaches spending time in Australian programs, and our sideline walkers taking active roles in coach development in China.

When you hear GM Jeremy Loeliger talk about the discussions being held, it sounds very much like a basketball free trade agreement being negotiated.

The more it looks like an innovative FTA the more likely the CBA and FIBA will support it, the more likely an NBL team in China will be sustainable, and the more likely countries like the Philippines and Japan will get on board.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but the NBL has realised the many strengths Australian basketball has to offer in return for the commercial return these Asian countries can deliver.

Now, let’s see if they can make it a reality.


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