The University of Memphis prospects for gold on foreign hard courts
By Donnie Snow, Tennessee Business Magazine
Two years ago, ranking members of the Chinese government, including Vice-Premier Wu Yi, met with Memphis cotton moguls in the Peabody Hotel to cut a $300 million cotton deal. Given China's position as the world's fabric maker, the Chinese were understandably ravenous for our cotton. But few would have anticipated that the next sizzling Bluff City export could be college basketball.
Last September, Coach John Calipari visited Beijing with University of Memphis executives. There they formalized an exchange program with the Chinese Basketball Association to bring to Memphis Chinese coaches (75 over five years) for college coaching clinics covering everything from practice strategies to academics.
Sure, the move will open up the under-recruited coffers of the billion-strong nation that produced NBA star Yao Ming, but in the international marketplace, the Sino-Memphis connection could open up a brand new passing lane on the golden road to China—a road culture icons like Coke, Yahoo and McDonald's have found extremely lucrative.
"We probably are not going to see an immediate impact on what this does in every area, including the economic side," Calipari says. "We are now in the process of seeing if we can get our games on television in China. The NBA has shown games there and it's crazy how the game has been taken up by the Chinese. I hear the two top-selling NBA jerseys in China are [Cleveland's] LeBron James and [Houston's] Tracy McGrady because they are on television so much.
"If you're on television in China, then millions and millions—maybe even billions—are watching since they only have two or three TV stations."
It's not hard to imagine the financial windfall that size of captive audience could produce if a star Chinese athlete was seen dominating the hardwood wearing Memphis blue.
UM administrators and Memphis business leaders believe the exchange program's commercial opportunities can outstretch increased jersey sales, licensing deals or six-figure sneaker endorsements for the coach, but due to the program's unique quality, few seem prepared to capitalize on the program apart from the University registrar.
"The exchange program," Calipari says, "is hopefully going to bring 100 Chinese undergraduates [to UM] each year over the next five years. The hope is they enjoy their experience and encourage others to take part in this initiative."
A viral marketer might say such an endeavor constitutes the university having its own street team, if you will, in classrooms and boardrooms across China. Nevertheless, the grassroots good word is bound to bolster the buzz already begun by the CBA exchange program, a program national and international news agencies project will establish the smaller of the two major land-grant universities in Tennessee as a major brand on the international market—and possibly the major brand, as schools in this state go.