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NBL runner-up Guangzhou Free Man folds; is their hope for second-tier basketball?

2012 NBL runner-up, Guangzhou Free Man, announced last week that it will be dissolving effective immediately. 

Bleeding through money with no rescue in the form of promotion to the Chinese Basketball Association in sight, Guangzhou Free Man has dissolved from the National Basketball Association.

Last week, 2012 National Basketball League (China’s second-tier professional basketball league) runner-up, Guangzhou Free Man, announced that it is disbanding and will no longer be participating in the league. The decision came after investors met with team officials shortly after the playoffs.

Free Man dissolving from the NBL was unexpected. As league runner-up two years running, Free Man had built up one of the stronger teams in the league with the potential to win titles. But like all NBL teams, Free Man was never content to win NBL hardware; rather, they were committed to being part of the CBA’s long rumored plans for expansion.

Over the last two seasons, those rumors have grown louder and louder. Last year’s NBL champions, Jiangsu Tongxi, received consideration to become the CBA’s 18th team in 2011, but that idea eventually fell through. This summer, those same expansion plans rumbled once again, but as in years past, those rumors will remain at just that. According to reports, Free Man was once again passed over for expansion because with three CBA teams already playing in Guangdong province (Foshan, DongGuan and Guangdong), there is no market for a fourth.

Like all teams in the NBL, Free Man doesn’t turn a profit. But, then again, professional sports in China has never been about making money. It’s about stage and status. When promotion to the bright lights of the CBA looks to be a quickly approaching reality, owners and investors who crave to have their name on the big-time national platform of professional basketball can live with short-term losses. Tell those same people that their big money can’t and won’t be spent in the big leagues, though? Then burning through money in perpetual minor-leaguedom doesn’t sound so appealing.

That’s key to understand in the case of Free Man, who over the past two season were committed first and foremost to getting into the CBA. When news hit that the league will remain at 17 teams, it was a death blow for an organization that has been investing and losing piles of cash in recent years. Other factors appear to be in play, too. Prior to this season, Free Man attempted to move to Chongqing, an idea that irritated the Guangdong Provincial Sports Bureau. The clash between the two sides frayed relations, with local government eventually pulling their support from the team.

Free Man’s disbandment from the NBL serves as a warning sign for second-tier basketball in China. With no promotion system in place and with yet another season of no CBA expansion, what exactly is the purpose of summertime professional basketball? What incentives do owners have in investing in their teams? How can the league develop and improve?

No answers are currently present. But since teams are asking the same exact questions, hopefully somebody can come up with something soon.

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