Pictured here at a NIKE promotional event at Hunan University on July 16, 2011 in China, this image … [+]
Visual China Group via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant’s multiple impacts upon the worlds of basketball, sports, entertainment, fashion, and culture are numerous and global. Which explains why so many people are so deeply stunned and saddened with the news of his untimely passing on Sunday morning in suburban Los Angeles.
But on this solemn evening as we all reflect on his life and accomplishments both on and off the basketball court, my thoughts specifically turned to Kobe’s lasting impact on the propensity and success of NBA stars expanding their global brands into the extremely lucrative Chinese marketplace.
Many of today’s NBA superstars (LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden just to name three) are revered as demigods by many Chinese basketball fans…even after the relationship between the NBA and China was strained in October 2019.
In large part, LeBron, Steph, and Harden (and numerous others to be listed below) have David Stern, Yao Ming, and Kobe Bryant to thank for this.
David Stern, Yao Ming, Timing, and Kobe’s Concerted Efforts in China
David Stern, the transformative and visionary former NBA commissioner who just recently passed, re-initiated the relationship between the NBA and China in the late 1980s by meeting with China’s state run television network CCTV to get games on air. By 1994, all the NBA finals were shown live in China.
This is where timing plays a key role in why Kobe Bryant (and not Michael Jordan) became the most popular American NBA star in China after Yao’s arrival (which elevated the awareness and interest of the NBA in China).
- The 2002-03 season was Michael Jordan’s last season in the NBA, and while still effective at age 39, he was now with the Washington Wizards and was 4 seasons removed from the last of his six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls.
Pictured here from June 2000 is Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal after winning their first NBA title … [+]
- Conversely and simultaneously, Kobe’s star was on the rise with the league’s hottest team at the time. The Lakers had just won their third consecutive NBA title in June 2002 with Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal as the team’s dynamic duo, and Kobe achieved two individual milestones for the first time during the 2001-02 season (1st team All-NBA and MVP of the 2002 All-Star Game).
- From the 2002-03 through the 2012-13 seasons, he was inarguably one of the three best players in the game…averaging at least 27 points per game in 8 of 11 seasons and never falling below 24 points per game.
- During these years, several things happened which helped facilitate Kobe’s global reach. Facebook started in 2004, Twitter started in 2006, NBA China was founded in 2008, Weibo (often referred as the Chinese equivalent to Twitter or Facebook) launched in 2009, and Instagram launched in 2010. The significance of all of this is the ascension of Kobe’s on-court career perfectly aligned with the birth of various social media channels. The confluence of these two events yielded a perfect storm to transform a growing Lakers legend into an international superstar…and one of the most popular athletes in China.
- Furthermore, and even before this 11-year span, Bryant made a concerted effort to build his personal relationship with the Chinese public. Bryant first visited China to host a basketball clinic in 1998. He returned on a promotional tour for Adidas in 2001. Since then, he visited China every year from 2006 through 2015 on promotional tours for Nike. Additionally, he competed and won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he visited China with the Lakers for two exhibition games against the Golden State Warriors in 2013.
From August 2008 at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Kobe Bryant works his way through a crowd of … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
It is true that David Stern had the vision to re-engage with China. He was a brilliant businessman, and he saw the opportunity for expansion and growth.
And it is true that Yao Ming’s stardom was absolutely critical to getting Chinese fans to really engage with the NBA. Had Yao been a seldom-used bench player, the Chinese interest in basketball would not have grown as quickly as it did. Quite to the contrary, Yao had a Hall of Fame career…which helped to fuel Chinese interests in the NBA.
But Kobe Bryant had the good sense to leverage and activate his brand in China on a magnitude that far exceeded any American-born player before him.
For that, he was truly a pioneer.
Thanks to both (1) good timing (his ascendance aligned with Yao’s arrival and the proliferation of social media platforms) and (2) the intelligence/foresight to strategically bond with a massive and adoring new fan base, Kobe Bryant was really the first American NBA star to truly leverage his stardom to build strong connective relationships with Chinese basketball fans.
YouTube videos here, here, and here lend only partial visual evidence of the fact that Bryant was absolutely worshiped by the Chinese fans. A testament to his concerted and cunning efforts to market both his personal brand and the sport of basketball to an entire nation…by simply connecting with people on a personal level.
A strategy that cemented Bryant as the most popular global athlete in China…even after his career ended.
As history will remember, Bryant’s actions in China not only enhanced/enriched his own brand, but also enriched:
- The Lakers’ and NBA’s global reach by further increasing their collective popularity in China;
- And empowered future NBA stars to cash in on their global popularity in China.
Other current NBA stars who have enriched themselves with lucrative endorsements with Chinese companies (especially in the footwear market), include:
As Mike Lupica wrote on Sunday, Kobe Bryant leaves behind a complicated legacy.
But what is not complicated to understand is the legacy Kobe Bryant leaves as a pioneer among American-born NBA players in skillfully building his brand in China.
His vision, intelligence, and willingness to engage the people of China was a great lesson in how those who invest their time into fan engagement will produce the most loyal of followings.
Those Chinese loyalties to Kobe paid major dividends for him personally and the NBA’s growing popularity in China over his career and beyond (the last few months not withstanding).
And the initiatives Kobe took to build relationships with Chinese basketball fans paid major dividends to the next generation of NBA stars (13 alone mentioned in this article above) who have followed in Kobe’s footsteps to shrewdly maximize the return to their own personal brands in China.