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Is the NBA risking locking themselves out of the Chinese basketball market?

Eighty million.

This represents the approximate amount of money that the NBA and the Players Association are disagreeing over, and the reason the NBA season is locked out and didn’t tip off last weekend.

Three hundred million.

This is the estimated amount of basketball players and potential NBA fans in China. It is a number that nearly equals the entire population of the United States.

While the NBA is undoubtedly worried about losing fans at home in America due to the lockout, they should also be concerned about a dwindling fan base in China.  Beyond the season starting late, if at all, Yao Ming is retired. Yi Jianlian, once hyped as a Chinese Dirk Nowitzki, has instead turned into a player Basketball-Reference.com compares to Loren Woods and Dickey Simpkins. For the first time in a decade, the NBA landscape for Chinese players is uncertain.

As a result, NBA television ratings are at all-time lows in China.  This past June, a Sina Weibo poll said that 57% of respondents would not watch the NBA after Yao retired. As longtime commentator and basketball enthusiast Xu Jicheng put it, “It is Yao Ming who makes the kids in China like basketball and it’s also Yao Ming who makes the kids know how a real professional basketball player should be.”

But, Yao wasn’t the only NBA player who Chinese fans connected with. His star teammates with the Rockets, Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis, are also wildly popular as a result of playing alongside the Chinese center. After all, it was McGrady, not Yao, who had the top-selling jersey in China during the 2006 season, at the height of the Yao era. Yet, even the T-Mac era in China has fallen. McGrady’s career has been coming to a slow, injury-riddled, painful-to-watch end for the past few seasons — last year he averaged only 8 points in 23 minutes for a pathetic Detroit Pistons team. While the Chinese may still adore him (he just completed a tour of China promoting humanitarian causes in August), it doesn’t change the fact that his best playing days are behind him and he’s no longer a marketable cash cow.

The reality for the NBA in China is clear: Casual fans who once tuned in religiously the mornings to watch Yao and the Rockets have now gone back to centering their pre-noon schedules around school and work. With Yao, the NBA had a go-to player and a go-to team for Chinese fans to watch. Now looking at an NBA without Yao, the league appears to have gone back to being more of a niche form of entertainment.

This is the background that sits behind the NBA lockout here in China. As with all work stoppages, disappointment, anger, spite, and sadness are common feelings among fans. With the NBA’s lockout getting more serious, these feelings are more than understandable. The owners and Players Association cannot agree on how to divvy up a small percentage of revenue; it’s millionaires and billionaires grappling over a few million dollars, chump change when compared with the billions of dollars that stand to be made from all this.

In America, the NBA is doing its best damage control by providing updates and development through its “Labor Central” web page that is prominently featured on the front page of NBA.com. They also have a $7.4 billion TV contract with TNT and the biggest sports news outlet, ESPN, which can conveniently spin the blame on the players.

On the other side of the world, however, Chinese NBA fans — at least officially — have been completely locked out on information about the NBA’s work stoppage. As Adam Minter writes, ”To find any Chinese-language evidence that the NBA has locked its players out of the gyms, Chinese fans must click on the news tab on the NBA China site, and then scroll through news releases to find an Oct. 11 story headlined, ‘NBA announces the cancellation of two weeks of regular season games.’” But that’s not to say that fans are completely in the dark about the lockout. Websites, television programs, newspapers and magazines all have kept close tabs on the lockout and fans, if they want to go out and look for it, have no shortage of resources for information.

It’s puzzling that the NBA would risk alienating such a large and important fan base. According to USA Today, the NBA received 4.7 billion page views from China last season. Twelve time zones away from league headquarters in New York City, fans already have to overcome an inconvenient time change just to watch games.  With no NBA to watch, the league risks losing these fans forever, as they may be losing interest in the NBA’s product to begin with.

Chinese fans might also be less inclined to follow the NBA now that the CBA’s imported players are almost all former NBA players. The days of Nigel Dixon and Donta Smith-like players are over. Now, fans can see the likes of two-time aAll-Star Stephon Marbury, trash-talking intimidator Kenyon Martin, and the unpredictable but high-scoring J.R. Smith live. They’ll also be able to see them and the rest of the league on television more frequently than ever. As the lockout persists, more high-profile players are likely to join them.

As a commissioner who is completely bent on globalizing the game of basketball, David Stern is risking more than just the U.S. market during this lockout. With most recent reports saying the players want to take the failed negotiations to the American legal system, there is no end in site to the NBA’s work stoppage.

In China, however, the CBA season is set to begin. Fans will undoubtedly be intrigued with the idea of seeing if Kenyon Martin can deliver Xinjiang a championship, to watch J.R. Smith’s electrifying athleticism, and to embrace Yi’s (temporary) return to the Middle Kingdom.

The NBA, however, is facing a reality that their locked-out league is only going to push more Chinese fans away from organizing their mornings around watching basketball.

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