the Chinese Basketball Association

With basketball quickly gaining ground as a popular sport worldwide, it becomes increasingly important for leagues to approach business in an efficient way that maximizes resources and talent. In my expository writing class, I tackled an issue that I saw with the Chinese Basketball Association and the current system it runs.

The Chinese Basketball Association is a joke. Run by the central government, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) has failed to provide quality games to its fans and has developed a reputation as a league with no merit in the world of basketball. The CBA’s terrible reputation stems from several directional miscues, including an inability to develop and attract quality talent, financial short-sightedness, disorganization, and corruption. It is the Chinese government’s responsibility to clean up the mess it created in the first place and allow the CBA to transform into a driven, privately-managed business.

After watching the American National Basketball Association’s global audience grow exponentially with the introduction of the famed 1992 Olympic “Dream Team”, China was drawn to the financial potential of basketball. In 1995, the government formed the Chinese Basketball Federation, which was put in charge of creating China’s first basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association, quenching the thirst for millions of Chinese basketball fans. Without a deep understanding for developing a successful, long-lasting league, the government built an unstable foundation that focused solely on making money and went to extraordinary lengths to squeeze dollar signs out of the fragile system. The CBA – yearning for corporate sponsorships and media attention – decided to name each season according to the name of the primary sponsor. From 1995 to 2006, the league held names such as the Hilton League, Motorola League, and China Unicom League.[1] The CBA stopped this practice after league officials realized having only one main sponsor drove away many other companies looking to invest. Ironically, many of the CBA’s teams today are still sponsored by single corporations, as well as being named after those corporations. For instance, the Beijing Shougang Ducks have been sponsored by the Shougang Corporation, China’s fourth largest steel company.[2] In 1997, solely wanting to promote the corporation and ditch the team mascot, the team changed its name to “Beijing Shougang Basketball Team.” Although the team has since turned back to its old name, it is evident that teams will do anything to attract sponsors. The CBA’s financial short-sightedness with the sponsorship program displays a lack of organization and prioritization within the government’s mismanagement of the league. Thus, the sponsorship program itself shows the CBA’s ambiguity as to who is in charge and what long-term vision they are trying to fulfill.

The government’s inconsistent grasp on the CBA often scares away investors and limits the potential success of the league. When large corporations become sponsors for CBA teams, all of the sponsorship money is managed by the Chinese Basketball Federation instead of the individual teams.[3] Teams are completely dependent on the sponsorship dollars, which are dictated by the government. In addition, CBA teams cannot generate free-market income in this communistic system. Today, only one of the teams in the CBA – the Guangdong Hongyuan) – is actually profitable for the league, due to its strong local fan base. The Shanghai Sharks, the team Yao Ming played for as a teenager, was left without a sponsor and almost folded until Yao’s investment company agreed to buy the club in 2009. The Sharks had the “worst deficit in the 14 years of the Chinese Basketball Association” until Yao bought the team.[4] Matt Beyer, the first foreign sports agent given a government license, voiced that the CBA “runs itself as a business and as a government entity.” China’s sponsorship program and lack of funding not only point toward a flawed system, but also display diverted interests and priorities.

In addition to its systematic issues, the CBA also lacks quality home-grown and international talent, in addition to attracting the wrong types of basketball players. In terms of home-grown talent, the only truly successful basketball player to come out of China has been Yao Ming, who was the first pick of the 2002 NBA Draft despite the ending of his career due to injuries. Otherwise, only a few Chinese players have advanced to the bigger leagues, such as Wang Zhi Zhi and Yi Jianlian; however, both eventually returned back to the CBA. In the CBA, homegrown talent is often not well trained or equipped to face fiercer competition. Errick McCollum, a fringe NBA talent, went off for 82 points in a single game for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.[5] While the statistic is impressive, it points more towards a serious talent gap between Chinese professional basketball players and “foreign players” rather than McCollum’s scoring ability. On the opposite end, the list of imported players that the CBA attracts consists of fringe talents and players who are more known for their off-court antics than their basketball skills. For example, in 2009, NBA player Delonte West had been arrested for speeding past a police cruiser in his three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder motorcycle in Maryland “while carrying a small arsenal” that consisted of a couple pistols and a shotgun.[6] In 2011, a circulating rumor claimed that West may or may not have been in a relationship with Lebron James’s mother, Gloria, and caused Lebron’s sudden drop in field goal percentage and ruined team chemistry in the 2011 NBA Playoffs.[7] And in 2013, West, who was once a talented young player in the NBA, was out of the league and had signed a contract with Fujian Sturgeons.[8] The only reasons why Delonte West signed with a CBA team were that there was no NBA team willing to take on his baggage and that he was being paid a heft amount of money. Other names on the short list of current and former NBA players include Stephon Marbury, Metta World Peace, J.R. Smith, and Gilbert Arenas, none of them being the type of players a high-quality league would want to attract.

Not only is the league a magnet for unwanted, grumpy players, but also it has labor issues and past problems with paying players’ salaries. When developing a high-quality league, employers must be fair with employees in order to create a system built on trust. However, the CBA has done the exact opposite. In 2013, Shavlik Randolph, an NBA castaway, signed a contract with the FoShan Tigers, and subsequently led the league in scoring. After playing through the season, FoShan refused to pay Randolph. Randolph later sued the team and received partial compensation in a lawsuit arbitrated by FIBA, the International Basketball Federation.[9] Often times, when teams refuse to pay players, the players’ lawsuits “float in legal limbo without any immediate resolution.”[10] This allows CBA teams to force players into the complex legal system and hope that the players will eventually give up on fighting for lost wages. Chris Daniels, another unfortunate marginal NBA talent, also received no pay after playing for the Liaoning Jaguars. Although FIBA ordered Liaoning to pay Daniels his salary plus lawyer fees, totaling over $300,000, the Jaguars told FIBA that it would not recognize the judgement and planned to appeal. Liaoning also attempted to cut costs by housing Daniels’ family in an isolated apartment that lacked heating despite the freezing temperatures in the region.[11] These jarring issues display the lackadaisical attitude that the CBA has towards maintaining a respectable reputation. In order for the CBA to be taken seriously and attract foreign players, league officials must crack down on teams damaging the league’s reputation and allow players to form unions for fair workers’ rights.

Because of the league’s stinginess, combined with a lack of an officiating union and set rules, many of the referees officiating the games do not fully understand the rules of basketball. Often times, home teams receive obvious preferential treatment, sparking anger in several well-known players. Tracy McGrady, who played a season for the Qingdao Eagles, commented that the “’CBA has to do a better job with these officials. My team plays hard every night and the 3 blind mice take it away from us! This bad officiating has to change. No way am I coming back if the officiating continues to be this errant’.” His comments awarded him a one game suspension; however, the referees certainly had issues calling fouls in the game. While the league did suspend the head referee for 10 games, the suspension failed to address the core issue of disorganization and misunderstanding. Often times, officials do not understand rules “like the difference between a block and a goaltending,” which is a very basic, yet important, rule.[12] The league cites that the reason it is hesitant to reform is because it would involve paying them more.[13] The league’s stinginess, and its communistic system, severely harm the quality of the product it provides its fans.

Although some may point to Project 119 as representative of China’s excellence at producing winning athletes, developing a league requires more long-term vision and organization. In 2001, following the announcement that the 2008 Summer Olympics would be held in Beijing, the Chinese General Administration of Sports founded Project 119 to increase the country’s gold medal count. The project aimed to “achieve more medals-for-the-buck” by investing in developing athletes for obscure and individual sports.[14] The government is using the same communistic approach towards the CBA; however, creating and developing a league is not the same as producing individual athletes, especially in a league for a team sport. Leagues are businesses. They require long-term vision, organized planning, an understanding of the audience, and most importantly, patience. With this communistic approach, the government is trying to find the fast-track to success.

If the government continues its approach towards the CBA, it will surely stagnate in mediocrity and miss out on long-term financial success. In 2004, the CBA held a development meeting at an International Basketball Forum in Beijing, where it instituted the North Star Project. Li Yuanwei, the vice president and secretary general of the CBA at the time, mentioned that the two main issues discussed in the meeting were “not being clear about things [and] management of the players’ salary and bonuses.”[15] After over ten years into the North Star Project, the CBA has yet to prove that it can be clear about the management of player salaries, let alone display that it deserves the sponsorships that it yearns for. The league needs to change its entire approach. When sports leagues chase dollars first, they are bound to fail. If the government releases its control of the league, private investors would flock in to catch the opportunity. Only private investors will have the freedom and creativity to come up with new ways to improve the quality of the league, whether it be through locating and developing talent or ensuring the quality of play for its fans. Most people rich enough to invest in sports teams have long-term vision and an understanding of organization. For example, the Euroleague, a privately run basketball league, is widely successful, even in the midst of a huge European economic downturn. With a solid foundation built on quality play, the Euroleague achieves worldwide success, broadcasting its games to 199 countries, including China.[16]

Moving forward, the Chinese government has an enormous opportunity to build a successful basketball league. However, in order for the CBA to achieve general and financial continuity, the central government must let go and allow the league to function independently. If the government can realize the CBA’s potential, allowing private investors to develop the CBA will ultimately help improve the government’s and the league’s worldwide reputation.

[1] “CBA League to Initiate Reform in New Season.” China Biz Info. June 25, 2004. Accessed December 4, 2015.

[2] “Ducks Come Back for More.” JS Online. June 6, 2008. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[3] Zwerling, Jared. “How the Chinese Basketball Association Became the Hot Destination for NBA Talent.” Bleacher Report. October 29, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2015.

[4] Liu, Zhen, and Nick Mulvenney. “Yao Ming Buys Cash-strapped Shanghai Team.” Reuters. July 16, 2009. Accessed December 3, 2015.

[5] Astramskas, David. “Errick McCollum Scores CBA Record 82 Points.” Ball Is Life. February 1, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[6] Windhorst, Brian. “Cleveland Cavaliers Guard Delonte West Arrested on Weapons Charges.” September 18, 2009. Accessed December 3, 2015.

[7] Petchesky, Barry. “Deadspin Classic: How Everyone Decided Delonte West Was Boinking LeBron’s Mom.” Deadspin. May 8, 2011. Accessed December 13, 2015.

[8] Hsu, James. “Americans Playing in China: Top 10 Performances.” Sheridan Hoops. January 5, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2015.

[9] Trapani, E. “Dongguan Leopards in Advanced Talks with Shavlik Randolph.” Sportando. May 6, 2014. Accessed December 2, 2015.

[10] Wong, Alex. “The Chinese Basketball Association Is Fucked Up.” Vice Sports. August 27, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2015.

[11] Crawford, Andrew. “Chris Daniels, Unpaid Wages And The Latest Black Day For The CBA.” Shark Fin Hoops. August 20, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2015.

[12] Tao, Anthony. “CBA Suspends Tracy McGrady For Calling Referees “3 Blind Mice”; Qingdao-Bayi Refs Suspended 20 Combined Games.” Beijing Cream. January 11, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2015.

[13] Wong, Alex. “The Chinese Basketball Association Is Fucked Up.” Vice Sports. August 27, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2015.

[14] Osnos, Evan. “Is Corruption Souring China on Gold Medals?” The New Yorker. January 29, 2015. Accessed December 6, 2015.

[15] “CBA Aims for World Top Leagues in Ten Years.” China Daily. October 22, 2004. Accessed December 2, 2015.

[16] “Euroleague Basketball, Televisión Española (TVE) Reach Agreement in Principle to Broadcast Real Madrid’s Turkish Airlines Euroleague Games.” Euroleague Basketball. March 19, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2015.



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