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Showtime in China as NBA gets real

WATCH out "Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol." The National Basketball Association is launching its latest reality TV show, but fans will have to understand mandarin to watch it.

"Mengniu NBA Basketball Disciple," airing in China starting in May, is part of the NBA's effort to build its popularity in the world's most populous country. The show follows the formation of a partnership that could lead to an NBA-backed league in China.

"We're having an incredibly exciting season here in run-up to the playoffs and you can absolutely feel that very much in China just as if you were in any of the cities here in the US," said Heidi Ueberroth, president of the NBA's international business. "The popularity of the game in China is at an all-time high."

The NBA has supported Chinese basketball for decades, including first hosting the Chinese national team in 1985. Chinese interest spiked after giant center Yao Ming joined the NBA in 2002. The league now has 51 different networks broadcasting games in China. The push in China comes as the NBA struggles with the US recession, which forced it to cut 9 percent of league jobs.

Nevertheless, Commissioner David Stern said last month NBA revenue was up slightly and attendance was holding steady. Despite slower international growth overall, NBA revenue in China, the league's largest international market, is rising 30 percent to 40 percent per year.

"In China, the NBA has a chance to be alone among the major global sports," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. "It really becomes very clear that this is where new revenue comes from."

The Chinese reality TV show is the NBA's sixth such program overall since 2002, but the first outside the United States.

The show, a basketball competition in 64 cities involving retired NBA stars, will be broadcast on Shandong TV on Friday nights from May 22 to August 28. The winner will receive an all-expense paid trip to try out for the NBA's lower-level developmental league.

Chinese dairy company Mengniu, an NBA marketing partner since 2007, is the show's main sponsor.

An estimated 300 million people play basketball in China, the NBA said, citing data provided by the Chinese Basketball Association.

The league has more than 130 employees in four offices in China. In October, it formed a joint venture with sports and entertainment group AEG to build at least a dozen "NBA-style" arenas in major cities.


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