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US Professional Basketball League Promotes Sport in China

The game of basketball has become big business in China, involving media, merchandising, and marketing. According to the National Basketball Association -- the U.S. professional league known as the NBA -- 83 percent of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 24 are NBA followers. And as Sam Beattie reports from Beijing, the NBA is capitalizing on this growing market.

A nationwide 2-on-2 competition is what the National Basketball Association calls a grassroots marketing campaign.

With more than 35,000 participants in 112 cities across the country, NBA officials say the U.S. basketball league is getting its message across. NBA China's Managing Director, Mark Fischer, says, "It serves a variety of purposes, but certainly the main reason behind everything we do here is to promote the game of basketball. We are certainly promoting the NBA brand and we are delivering value back to the fans and our partners."

Players, like Dong Jun, can also see the potential. "China has many people, it's a big market for the NBA. Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhi Zhi are all playing in NBA. They are like the dragon head leading us basketball enthusiasts," he said.

Professional basketball players from China were first signed to compete on NBA courts in 2001. But basketball has been making inroads here for decades.

The NBA has held exhibition matches in China since the 1970s. Superstar Yao Ming remembers looking at the NBA from the outside. He says, "Looking back to when I was playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, its true we learned a lot from the NBA. We needed to learn new things including management operations and marketing. We learned a lot from the NBA about this."

Now Yao is an NBA icon.

Yao organized charity matches, which the NBA says have helped its rapid expansion in China. And NBA products are now for sale in thousands of locations across China. The league has recorded triple-digit growth in sales here over the past five years.

The basketball association has also allied with official athletic organizations to better promote the game.

The NBA's Mark Fischer says China has become the league's most important and developed market outside the U.S. Fischer says, "We hope, in collaboration with the Chinese authorities, the China sport ministry and the CBA to one day be involved with the league here in the professional league."

Chinese athletic officials say they have as many basketball players as the entire population of the United States -- some 300 million and growing. It is the size of this potential market that keeps the NBA playing offense in China.