How China Plan Could Change Hoops
Most agree Calipari’s strategy may eventually shake up college basketball
By BRUCE SCHOENFELD
On a Sunday last May, University of Memphis men’s basketball coach John Calipari sat in his backyard reading The New York Times and contemplating his future.
In recent seasons, Calipari has built one of the country’s top college programs at Memphis, replicating the success he had in the late 1990s at the University of Massachusetts. But like Massachusetts, Memphis isn’t built for long-term achievement. The athletic department lacks the easy revenue that goes to rivals in BCS conferences, and its winning tradition — a 1973 appearance in the NCAA championship game and a Final Four berth in 1985 — will never be confused with that of North Carolina, Indiana or Kentucky.
Despite consecutive 33-4 seasons, Calipari wondered how he could sustain the program at the level to which he’d taken it. Sitting outside, he read a column by Bill Rhoden titled “Basketball Sees Potential in China, and Vice Versa.” Rhoden noted the progress of Chinese basketball, and the NBA’s efforts to market to China. “I jumped up from the chair,” said Calipari, “thinking, ‘Maybe this could be my edge.’”
What followed is a tale of imagination and serendipity that culminated with the signing last week of a historic agreement with the Chinese Basketball Association that will see 15 Chinese basketball coaches come to the Memphis campus next month for a 10-day coaching clinic, with one remaining on Calipari’s staff for the 2007-08 season as a paid intern.
Calipari is hoping that the exchange will create a following among Chinese basketball fans for Memphis and the college game. He has agreed to hold clinics for coaches in various Chinese cities during each of the next five years. Future components of the deal discussed by Calipari and the CBA at a Wednesday meeting in Beijing included a postseason tour of China by the Memphis team and an exhibition against the Chinese Olympic team next May, and, potentially, Chinese student athletes playing basketball for the Tigers.
“If this stays in the role of just coaching, that’s great,” Calipari said. “If it goes further and the NCAA benefits, and we all benefit, that’s even better.”
The initiative marks the first foray for college sports in China, and creates an official relationship between the university and the Beijing government.
“This could definitely carry over into helping other colleges,” said former NBA coach Del Harris, who coached the Chinese national basketball team at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “Consider a market with 1.3 billion inhabitants. I mean, it’s simple mathematics. If you can expand your sphere of influence by 1.3 billion people, that’s a good thing.”
From his awakening on that sleepy Sunday in May, Calipari may have singlehandedly cracked open the door to China for U.S. college athletics.
Xia Song Emerges As Key Player
The day after he read Rhoden’s story, Calipari called Fred Smith, the CEO of Memphis-based FedEx, which does business in 200 Chinese cities, and asked what Smith thought of a China initiative involving Tigers basketball.“Brilliant,” Calipari says that Smith replied.
Calipari then called William Wesley, a friend and adviser to many past and current NBA players. Wesley told Calipari of traveling to China with LeBron James. “He’s probably bigger in China than he is in the United States,” Wesley said, encouraging the Memphis coach to pursue the idea.
Calipari had never been to China, and had no connections that he knew of with the Chinese, but he was enthusiastic and persuasive. A few weeks later, in early June, Calipari called Harris, who is respected in China as a basketball elder statesman and who had made a coaching interchange one of his 14 recommendations to the Chinese government. “I told them to do what European countries were doing as long ago as 35 to 40 years ago,” Harris said. “Coaches from Italy and Spain and Greece would come over for a month at an NCAA school. It was important that China find a way to do that.”
Calipari was proposing exactly that. In an instance of perfect timing, Harris had a meeting with a group of Chinese basketball officials — including CBA head Li Yuanwei — scheduled in Dallas the following week. Harris agreed to introduce Calipari to the group as the best man for the job.
Upon landing in Dallas, Calipari became reacquainted with Xia Song. They’d met nine years ago at a Nike clinic in Italy, but by the time Calipari had his China epiphany, he’d long forgotten. Xia, who was accompanying the group as a translator and all-around deal-maker, is an influential Chinese agent and entrepreneur who is the voice of NBA broadcasts on Chinese television, and is considered to be indispensable when it comes to doing business involving basketball in China.
“He understands both the East and West, and he’s been a conduit,” Bruce O’Neil, the president and founder of the United States Basketball Academy, an Oregon-based training facility with strong links to China, said of Xia. “He’s close to the coaches, he has access, and he’s very close with the head of the CBA.”
With Xia as the facilitator and Harris as cheerleader, the outlines of a deal were quickly hammered out between Memphis and the CBA. “We met for lunch, and by the time lunch was over two hours later, this thing was in the can,” Calipari said. “Xia said, ‘Let me meet with them back in China, and we’ll get the ball rolling.’”
The consummate insider, Xia worked the bureaucracy. By early August, six weeks after the Dallas meeting, a plan was initiated and approved, with FedEx on board as a sponsor, providing travel costs for the coaching interchange and covering camp expenses in return for visibility and the right of first refusal on sponsorship deals as the relationship progresses. Not only was Smith vociferously in favor of Calipari’s plan, but FedEx CFO Alan Graf sits on Nike’s board of directors and is well-versed in China’s sports market.
“We’ll get some brand-building, some awareness over in China and in the U.S., and we’ll see where the program goes,” Graf said. “If this has the effect that we think it will in terms of getting the FedEx name in front of the Chinese people, then we’ll expand our involvement. We will ride this wave as it grows.”
FedEx has its name on the Tigers’ basketball venue, the FedEx Forum. It is creating a major hub in China, and sponsors the Chinese Olympic badminton team. The connection with Chinese basketball seemed a natural fit, especially when it involved the hometown team.
“This outreach could get Memphis mentioned in the same breath as the Indianas and Dukes and North Carolinas and the other top programs in America,” Graf said.
Different approach than NBA
Standing between Calipari and his vision are two of the world’s densest bureaucracies: the Chinese government, which controls the CBA, and the NCAA, which has stringent — and occasionally conflicting — guidelines covering overseas travel, recruiting foreign players, coaching clinics, television and just about anything else Calipari might attempt to do in China.
After initially declining to comment on the deal, the NCAA has reacted with caution
a prepared statement called Calipari’s efforts “fascinating” — rather than ebullience.
Some are not surprised by the NCAA’s response. “I’ve approached them in the past about doing some exchange-type things, but they can’t monetize it,” said USBA’s O’Neil. “They don’t see what benefit it gives them.”
If Calipari can successfully negotiate his way between the CBA and NCAA, the real payoff will come as the relationship expands.
“The Chinese fans haven’t had a chance to see the players, coaches and fans of NCAA basketball,” Xia said. “I know that it is authentic basketball, but the Chinese people do not. Not yet.”
The CBA’s agreement with Memphis, a public institution, is perceived as a government-to-government initiative. That wasn’t the approach taken by the NBA, which has been the most aggressive American sports entity in promoting its product in China.
The NBA has cultivated Chinese markets through a purely commercial approach, with exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in prior years and in Macao and Shanghai this fall, with a Chinese-language Web site offering live streaming of games and with a steady flow of telecasts and licensed products.
“The NBA is the top league in the world, but the start of this program is much stronger and more official than the NBA’s relations with the Chinese Basketball Association,” Xia said. “That matters in China.”
The NBA estimates that 300 million Chinese play organized basketball, which means China has as many active players as the United States has people. “The interest in basketball there is tremendous,” Harris said. “Right now, it has been focused on the NBA, but I think they could get interested in NCAA basketball. Particularly if they had a Chinese connection.”
Over the long term, Xia imagines the best Chinese youth players going to the U.S. for college basketball — and an education. While some might remain to play in the NBA, the rest will return home to China to spread their knowledge. “A talented junior player developed playing college basketball in the States, if he comes back to China, will become a star,” he said, which would presumably send more top juniors down the same path.
This season, three Chinese-born basketball players will compete for NCAA Division I schools: Shang Ping at Nebraska, Ji Xiang at Hawaii, and 7-foot-3-inch Max Zhang at California. “Why are these kids of interest in China?” asked Terry Rhoads, the American-born managing director of Zou Marketing, a top sports marketing firm in Shanghai. “Because nobody from China, short of Ma Jian in 1993 at Utah, has really played big-time college basketball. Let’s watch those players, because their success — both on the court and in the classroom — will set a precedent.”
“Memphis will be like the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, when they drafted Wang Zhizhi as the first Chinese player in the NBA,” said Xia, who started representing Wang and Mengke Bateer (China’s second NBA player) in 2000. “When Wang stepped on the court in 2001 for the first time against the Atlanta Hawks, more than 200 million people were watching that moment live in China.”
The Potential for Memphis
It isn’t lost on Calipari that Chinese basketball fans no longer show nearly as much interest in the Mavericks as they do in the Rockets, who drafted Yao Ming No. 1 in 2003 and instantly supplanted Dallas as China’s favorite team. He’s under no illusions that his pioneer status will gain him anything more than a head start.
“Within the next three to four years, I’d hope to be fielding a team that has two or three Chinese players that are real contributors,” he said. “But this is for basketball as a whole.”
“Cal is being a revolutionary,” Wesley said. “He’s coming in and doing something that hadn’t been done before. Nobody else had the imagination to do it. And if they can get a kid from China who can play college there, then you’ll really see something. And you’ll start seeing more and more of them.”
Others agree, applauding Calipari’s long-term plan. “He’s looking two to three mountain ranges in advance and thinking what this could turn into over time,” Graf said.
Patience, however, is paramount.
“I think it’ll work, but it’ll be a long-term project,” O’Neil said. “What John’s doing has a lot of merit, but it’s an uphill battle because nobody in China knows anything about the NCAA. But when it finally takes off, it’s going to be gigantic.”
Part of what Calipari envisions is nothing less than the remaking of the University of Memphis into a national academic power. And for a university that had fewer than 400 undergraduates of Asian descent among almost 16,000 total enrollees last year, the deal complements an ongoing effort to establish an Asian presence on campus.
“I think this has potential on the academic side,” said Memphis Provost Ralph Faudree, who accompanied Calipari to China last week for the ceremony. “This is a chance for us to remake our image. It can be the front porch to academics, to give us visibility for things that can help a lot of our students.”
“For this program to sustain and grow, our campus has to grow,” Calipari said. “We have to be thought of in a different light. Dr. Faudree needs the basketball program to get him a higher profile. I need him to build better and better academics to help the reputation of the university, to take it to the next level. Increasing the Asian presence on our campus can help us do that. This is what we can be known for.”
Nobody is claiming Calipari’s visit to Beijing is the college basketball equivalent of ping-pong diplomacy. And marketers in China caution that the odds of making an impact remain long.
“We’ve got lots of people beating the basketball pathway to China, but it’s a very immature sports industry out here,” Rhoads said. “I applaud Memphis for doing this, but I think they’re running before the industry is walking. For Chinese consumers right now, this ain’t going to move the needle. Memphis will hit a kind of tipping point when one of China’s best young players cracks its lineup and actually becomes a player of significance.”
Even Xia, ever the optimist, knows that the road ahead won’t be a straight one. “There will be a lot of negotiations,” he said. “It will take a while. In China, the friendship and the trust mean everything.”