Bill Moriarty first went to Taiwan in 1990 to study Chinese language and history. At the same time, he retained his love of sports. Today, he is lucky enough to combine both passions, working in China with sports and entertainment marketing firm IMG, the company that brought Muhammad Ali to meet Deng Xiaoping in 1979. He spoke with CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about the role of sport in China’s economic development.
Q: Why is basketball so popular in China compared to other Western sports?
A: Basketball in China has more than a hundred years of history. The sport was brought here in the late 1800s by Christian missionaries. It was taught in the foreign schools and became very popular in Chinese universities. Today there are about 300 million people in China who play basketball.
Q: So what’s so attractive about the Chinese sports market?
A: There’s a rapidly growing middle class, and they have more leisure time, and they use that time to partcipate in different sporting events. You have many international companies that want to get involved in the China market if they’re new entrants, and established international players that are keen to extend their reach beyond the tier-one cities.
Q: What about domestic companies? How can they use sports marketing to go national?
A: Take the dairy industry, for example. Milk producers can now irradiate milk so that it doesn’t need refrigeration. Before that, milk couldn’t be transported around the country. This means these once-regional companies can extend their market boundaries and become national brands. Their sports advertising budgets have burgeoned… Yili was an Olympic sponsor, while Mengniu became an NBA sponsor.
Q: What is happening in the realm of Chinese sport regulation and development?
A: Last year there was debate within the China General Administration of Sport (GAS) about the future of the sports system. Will it remain a state sports system or will these events have to be privately funded? Due to China’s strong showing in the Olympics, the decision was made to continue with state support. But there are still a lot of changes going on in the education system.
Q: Some say Beijing only sponsors sports that win a lot of gold medals, so the best Chinese athletes play sports that nobody watches…
A: I disagree. Diving and swimming are very popular; they’re just not commercial events. Badminton isn’t at the level of sponsorship support as basketball or golf, but there is a very wide following and the broadcasts get very high ratings.