Gunjan Prasad
Oct 14, 2016

Foreign sports eye fertile Asian grounds

Sports-fandom used to be predicated by locality. Today, the world’s biggest sports brands are in an arms race to build culture for the game on foreign soil, from the ground up.

From the grassroots: The key to the NBA’s strategy in Asia is winning over its youth through updated sports coverage, social media and the NBA youth league’s camps and programmes.
From the grassroots: The key to the NBA’s strategy in Asia is winning over its youth through updated sports coverage, social media and the NBA youth league’s camps and programmes.

As a nation, Indonesia does not really rank among the most sports-obsessed countries. Indonesians, for the most part, play and watch sports only moderately. Further, research from Nielsen lists the country’s most popular sports — by participation and audience size — as soccer, running, badminton, aerobics, volleyball, swimming and basketball, in that order.

Coming in at 7th has not deterred the NBA from trying to win over the archipelago along with other Southeast Asian countries. The region, with a population of over 600 million people, along with an expanding middle class, rising disposable incomes and a young median age, is proving a lure too strong to pass up. 

Besides the NBA, other non-native sports properties such as Formula E racing, Spanish football leagues and rugby are vying to gain a foothold in a market that is ready to break out. Running, in Asia, has evolved from a competitive track and field sport to a one that embraces wearable tech, youth culture and fitness thanks to brands like Nike and Adidas.

Interest in basketball in this part of the world [will not last forever] — without a reason for people to make it a part of their lives.
—Ross Henderson, iris Sport

For a long time, many big sports properties sat on the assumption that their success in the West earned them the right to an automatic place on the podium in the East. Even if that was once the case it certainly isn’t any longer. Asia, and China in particular, require completely separate content strategies. Top sports clubs and organisations are now focusing on these markets. 

“The allure of China has caused this change, and we expect to see it become the top market for most sports properties soon,” says Tom Elsden, senior client manager, Mailman Group.

The NBA’s approach in China, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia is an indicator of how times have changed since the erstwhile ‘dumping ground’ days. Asia has been a big part of NBA’s export strategy ever since the NBA commissioner, David Stern, first arrived in China in the late 1980s. He made the right moves to ensure a long-lasting presence in the region.

China has since become the NBA’s largest international market and continues to grow steadily. According to Ross Henderson, account director, at iris Sport, making the offering relevant is the biggest lesson here for sports properties that venture over to ‘crack Asia’. 

“Yes, the likes of Steph Curry and Lebron James are global superstars that transcend geography, but their participation in the sport will not last forever; neither will interest in the sport in this part of the world — without a reason for people to make it a part of their lives.”

 The NBA is working overtime to do just that.

It is starting at the grassroots — setting up partnerships with local sporting bodies, running workshops, making the culture and glamour of the game relevant to local markets. By getting kids interested in playing the game first, a new generation of fans that start as players will want to watch and learn from the best version of the game: the NBA in the USA. 

“Young people tend to like basketball as it is a fast-paced game; our athletes are charismatic, active in social media and music and are gamers, all the things that appeal to the target audience,” says Scott Levy, managing director, NBA Asia.

Levy, who came in seven years ago, is responsible for everything in Asia outside of Greater China and India, including New Zealand and Australia. 

“To expect a 16-year-old Indonesian kid to sit in front of a television for two-and-a-half hours is unrealistic and we are well aware of it. We speak to them in the language they understand.”

For instance, tapping into Indonesia’s love affair with social media, the NBA engages with content specially curated and locally developed for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now Line. “The programming is in Bahasa Indonesia with a lot more emphasis on music as that’s what the audience connects best with. The local Line account in Indonesia amassed more than 1 million fans in just over three months.”

Adidas, too, has plugged into China’s love for mobile and the Internet. The social element associated with running has proven very attractive, fuelled by the ability to share progress and encourage fellow runners online through popular apps and social media. Nationwide, WeChat has proven to be a vital engagement tool for the brand, not just in key cities such as Beijing and Shanghai but also in lower-tier cities. 

Starting next season, Indonesia will see the most comprehensive NBA coverage than ever before across every medium. The association plans to invest in specialised cameras that shoot content for mobiles, enabling viewers to track the game from various angles, live. According to Levy, there will be games aired on free TV as well as the introduction of sachet offerings on NBA League Pass, the NBA’s OTT platform, which will allow consumers to access NBA content at low prices. 

Further, NBA Asia is investing in programming across the popular genres of music, fashion and technology. “Our aim is to touch both the existing NBA consumers as well as new fans who may have other passions, but will get interested in basketball too. It is a long-term plan.”

For a developed market like Japan, they have entered into an alliance with Square Enix, a leading global gaming company that has made its maiden foray into sports through NBA. It is a card battle game that does not require basketball expertise to participate, but instead educates gamers about who the players are, the different skill sets, and so on, as they go along. “Like social and mobile, gaming is a platform where a lot of our potential fans spend a lot of their time and thus, it makes it an incredible tie-in for us,” says Levy. 

Besides Square Enix NBA Asia has two more local mobile gaming partnerships: Blue Print (developer of NBA Dream Team) and Marvelous (developer of NBA Clutch Time). NBA Dream Team is available in Japan, while NBA Clutch Time is available in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

The association has yet another strategy for the Philippines, given the maturity of NBA there and the fact that basketball is the undisputed number one sport. 

Other than media partners that carry content through digital platforms, NBA programming is available on local broadcasters such as StarHub in Singapore, Astro in Malaysia and True Visions in Thailand. In the Philippines, ABS-CBN, Fox Sports, and Solar air more than 30 games per week while Sony SIX airs 14 games a week in India.

While in the past it may have been tough for the NBA to convince local traditional media owners to invest in something other than football, Levy believes the time is ripe for basketball.

Running culture: From track-and-field to lifestyle — thanks to the efforts of brands such as Adidas

“Today, if you want to own the youth, basketball is the sport. Football may be big but it has also become extremely crowded. There are too many leagues, too many teams, too many countries doing the same thing and it has become tough to differentiate yourself within the space. It goes for both media owners and advertisers.

“On the other hand, if you want to have a conversation about basketball, you only have it with us. Further, we are propagating a much bigger message than just NBA. We are promoting an active and a healthy lifestyle and that is non-negotiable. A lot of advertisers are finding value in that proposition.”

NBA’s key marketing partners in the region include FrieslandCampina, CloudFone, Globe Telecom and Tahir Foundation. They recently inked a multi-year marketing partnership with Panasonic in the Philippines, thus, integrating the consumer electronics major into NBA’s broadcasts and grassroots events in the Philippines.

“I firmly believe that if you play a sport in your youth, you are more likely to follow that sport when older. Given how young everyone is in South East Asia, it is upon us to expose as many youngsters as we can to the true spirit of the basketball,” says Levy. To further this insight, Junior NBA, the league’s global youth basketball participation program for boys and girls, was launched in Asia three years back. This educational arm teaches fundamental skills as well as the core values of the game at the grassroots level in an effort to help grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents. So far, it has been rolled out in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. 

The programme has reached more than 1.5 million children, parents and coaches across Southeast Asia through camps, clinics and NBA Cares community outreach activities, and aims to reach 5 million youngsters by 2020. 

“Even if the participant doesn’t pick up a basketball after, but has learnt the importance of sport and being fit through this program, we have made a new fan,” says Levy.

Formula E in Hong Kong

Jan Cho

Formula E, a class of auto-racing that only uses electric cars, made its Hong Kong debut on October 9.

According to Jan Cho, general manager, TBWA Hong Kong: “The country is going through a very interesting time. There is a resurgence of core values of hard work and proving oneself against the odds. There’s a lot of talk about innovation locally in a way that’s never happened before. At the same time, the economy has slowed down and people realise they need to reinvigorate and bring fresh life to established structures and the way of life that was built in the past here.”

When you break down what Formula E racing is about, there are synergies and parallels. While it’s a racing spectacle that will help put Hong Kong on the world stage, Formula E is also about innovation and driving the world towards an electric future.

The ‘We are all drivers’ campaign turns racing into something that people can identify with.

“We turned those insights into stories personified by local KOLs that also embodied those values. It’s important for the campaign to be about much more than just racing and to use it to open up cultural values embedded in Hong Kong’s consciousness,” says Cho.

In sports and large-scale events, there’s opportunity to unite people for something important, which Cho thinks is crucial. “I think getting people to attend the event is one thing. But, more importantly, the greater challenge is to make the event culturally relevant to the general masses. It has to become a ‘Hong Kong event’, not just an adaption of the event in Hong Kong,” explains Cho.


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