A Timberwolves franchise that has surfed the NBA’s international wave by acquiring players from Spain, Senegal and Serbia as well as Canada and now Israel will play two preseason games in China next fall.
Why Shanghai and Shenzhen rather than, say, Barcelona?
The Wolves and the NBA have 1.4 billion good reasons, plus one.
Part of the NBA’s continuing “Global Games” series, those two October games against Golden State announced Monday by the NBA are the most visible examples in the Wolves’ strategy to make themselves and their young internationally famous stars something of “China’s Team,” in the most populous nation on Earth.
One of their young stars, Andrew Wiggins, two years ago visited Shanghai, a city of 24 million that dwarfs Wiggins’ metropolitan hometown of Toronto. Teammates Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and two-time All-Star dunk champion Zach LaVine also have visited China on promotional tours organized by the NBA or their sponsor shoe companies.
“There’s so many people, so much traffic,” Wiggins said. “Every big city is like that, but that’s a big city times 10. I think it makes anywhere look small.”
In such a vast, industrializing country whose citizens idolize NBA stars past and present, there is money to be made.
So much money.
Of course, China’s Team would be an unofficial title, just as the Houston Rockets more than a decade ago wildly popularized the NBA there by building their team around Yao Ming, an enormous Chinese star in more ways than one.
The Wolves have no such gifted and gargantuan Chinese player, but they became the first franchise in North American pro sports to add Chinese ownership when Shanghai sports-marketing executive Lizhang “John” Jiang bought 5 percent of the team last year.
Call Jiang’s addition a strategic decision by Wolves owner Glen Taylor, the longtime = chairman of the NBA’s Board of Governors who has helped oversee a league for which business is booming thanks to a new $24 billion television contract and its growing international popularity.
By doing so, Taylor has positioned his team to benefit from corporate sponsorships with Chinese companies and with American companies that do business in China.
Don’t forget television exposure/ratings and merchandise sales, too, in a land where the league has its own NBA China offices.
Wolves CEO Ethan Casson calls it the elevation of “the Timberwolves brand to a global stage” that’s just in its infancy.
“We think this just the beginning of a lot of things we can do in and around China,” he said.
Casson already has been to China twice, once with Taylor on a trip to Beijing that included a factory tour at one of Taylor’s other many businesses.
The Wolves have added China-based TCL Corporation, which calls itself the fastest-growing TV brand in North America, as one of seven “founding” partners. Seven Wolves’ games air this season on China television network CCTV and 25 others stream for free through Chinese media company Tencent, which also has launched the NBA’s subscriber League Pass digitally this season.
The Wolves also are in discussions with Chinese companies and those with Chinese interests — among other companies — to sponsor advertising patches on uniforms that they and the 29 other NBA teams now are selling for the first time.
Depending on a team’s marketability, a 2½-by-2½ inch patch will sell anywhere from $5 million a season to $20-million plus.
The Wolves could complete that deal in time for the patches to debut globally during those two Global Games China games on Oct. 5 in Shenzhen and Oct. 8 in Shanghai.
That will be just in time for redesigned uniforms that will debut next season.
Taylor last summer suggested relationships his team develops in China could include a coaching network that helps find promising young players as the game grows beyond spectating there.
Jiang praised the NBA’s marketing of its players at the same time, when his purchase was announced at league meetings in Las Vegas. He ticked off a list of such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry who are famed throughout his country.
“In China, you will see everyone on the basketball court,” Jiang said then through an interpreter. “You will see fans imitating signature moves of stars, me included. Now I’m a fan of Curry. I sometimes imitate his moves shooting three-pointers. The NBA has had a huge impact.”
Bigger in Beijing
Chinese fans know a new generation of NBA player now and at least four of them are Timberwolves players.
Towns’ fame preceded him when he visited last summer and at the time said by phone, “I think I may be even more popular here than I am in America. I’m known everywhere … Whoever would have thought that through the game of basketball my name would be known in China?”
LaVine has visited the last three years and was known even before he found slam-dunk fame preceded him and plans to do so again this summer.
“Man, you have no idea how many people there are until you go to the cities,” LaVine said last month. “You’re in one of the high-rises and you look down and it’s just packed. All the cars, all these little mopeds everywhere, the volume of people just takes your breath away.”
And with each fan, there is the chance for LaVine and his teammates to build their own personal “brand” and sell shoes, too.
If they sell their team’s brand, too, that’s all the better.
“To have all of them as Wolves fans, we’d be more than willing to welcome them to the pack,” Towns said. “My brand will be the way I make it. If I treat people right, am respectful and treat the world with love, then my brand will speak for itself.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau visited China regularly to work out Yao during summers when Thibodeau was a Houston assistant coach. He is a believer in such team-building, enough so that the team could hold training camp on the West Coast before it flies to China to play the Warriors twice.
“Those experiences for your team are invaluable,” he said. “It’s a good experience for our players and what they can learn from a different culture. It’s good from a lot of different standpoints. We’re excited about it.”
Staff writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this story.