What will the Chinese sports world be buzzing about in 2009? Here is a look at what could lie ahead this year. In no particular order, the top 10 sports stories in China for 2009:
1. International sports stars flood the Chinese market
Early this month, Michael Phelps signed a seven-figure deal with Mazda to be its face in China. Domestic sporting goods brand Anta just netted current No. 1 women’s tennis player Jelena Jankovic. And in the NBA, Ron Artest and Jason Kidd both hock Peak shoes, while Kobe Bryant launched a bilingual blog on Sina.com. Athletes and brands will continue to see this as a time of opportunity to get a foothold in the Chinese market.
2. Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets reach the NBA Finals
They’ve struggled with injuries to Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady, and are only ranked fifth in the West. But Yao Ming is cementing himself as one of the top big men in the league, and has been a clutch player in tight games this year. A playoff run was the goal of the Artest trade and if he, Yao and T-Mac can stay healthy, Houston still has a shot.
3. Liu Xiang returns or retires
Even though he pulled out of the Olympics due to a foot injury, the 110-meter hurdler who once held the world record in his event remains one of China’s favorite athletes. Liu’s coach has already managed expectations that he will compete in World Championships this coming August. Instead, he has talked about Liu returning for the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix in September. Whenever he takes the track again, all of China will be watching. However, it seems unlikely that Liu will ever regain his world-class form. If he decides to hang up his spikes this year, expect weeks of weepy coverage.
4. Next generation of Olympic stars emerges
China needs to do some reloading in the Olympic sports that it dominates—badminton, table tennis and diving. The national sports administration probably has a pretty good idea who the next Guo Jingjing (diving) and Lin Dan (badminton) will be. We will begin to see who these young athletes are and what they can do, in competitions in China and around Asia.
5. China’s sports TV landscape reshaped
Get on TV—that’s what pretty much every major sports league in the world wants to do in China. NBA airtime has arguably done as much as Yao Ming did for the league’s popularity here. This season, the NFL broadcast some taped games here and will broadcast the Super Bowl on CCTV, and Major League Baseball doubtless wants to be in Chinese living rooms as well. Don’t be surprised to see some unusual business models to emerge, like the advertiser/rights-owner one rumored to be a possibility for the English Premier League.
6. Chinese club sides redeem national pride in Asian Champions League
With all the focus on China’s perennially-underachieving national football team, and its scandal-tainted professional league, the revamped Asian Champions League 2009 is offering a less glamorous, but more realistic route to respectability for Chinese football. The new competition’s credibility has been boosted now that Japanese clubs are taking it seriously, and Australia now a key player in Asia after its move from the Oceania confederation two years ago. Shandong Luneng, Shanghai Shenhua, Beijing Guoan, and Tianjin Teda all go straight into the group stage alongside Japan, South Korea and Australia’s top clubs. Success at continental club level is not an unrealistic goal for Chinese football in 2009.
7. Corporate money boosts youth sports
Many international brands—including sports-oriented ones—will see this down economic cycle as a marketing opportunity in China. In a country without a system of organized youth sports competition, what better way to win the kids and their wallets over than sponsoring high school basketball leagues and swim meets? Nike has already done it to some extent with basketball, and Mercedes sponsors a new youth tennis program called Swing for the Stars. These kinds of programs build a close connection with participants and make for great international feel-good exposure for a relatively low cost.
8. NBA keeps making moves
About a year ago, the big announcement was the launch of NBA China, followed by games in Beijing and Guangzhou this fall, and the unveiling of plans to build a dozen arenas in Chinese cities. The league keeps a tight lid on its plans but here are some of the possibilities that lots of Chinese fans would love to see: more events in China (think summer games, All-Star Game or early regular-season games); involvement in non-sports entertainment (to fill those arenas year-round); a purchase of the Chinese Basketball Association.
9. Beijing Guoan win Chinese Super League thanks to government subsidy
In an effort to keep the momentum of a successful Olympics, the Beijing Government is to make a 20 million RMB investment in the capital’s football team. Despite being one of the country’s leading clubs, Beijing Guoan have never actually won a league title in the 15-year history of professional football in China. The money will be spent on youth development, and on funding a friendly with Manchester United this summer, in an effort to give Beijing’s local football fans something to finally shout about. It might just develop the feel-good factor missing for so long and be the year when Beijing finally breaks its duck.
10. Another Grand Slam run for a Chinese tennis player
After Zheng Jie (郑洁) knocked off Ana Ivanovic and made it to the Wimbledon semifinals last year, she raised expectations for herself for 2009. She’ll have to meet those expectations to prove that last year was no fluke. And Zheng and fellow Chinese players Yan Zi (晏紫), Peng Shuai (彭帅) and Li Na (李娜) all stand to benefit from the state tennis administration’s new policy allowing players more control over their training, play and winnings.
Jelena Jankovic image: Sina.com
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