What caught our eye in the build-up to this Chinese New Year is not the nearly-3 billion trips to be made via China’s transport system, not the thousands of ways to make pigs cuter including carving one into a watermelon, but the NBA’s pick for its Chinese New Year ambassador: 20 year old boy band member Cai Xukun from the group Nine Percent.
In a land where there has been much public debate and negative state media over the influence of ‘sissy boy’ role models, the decision caused the expected uproar online. On popular sports platform Hupu, known for its masculine user base, 82% – 39,363 voters – checked the option “I’d rather die” in a poll about Cai’s NBA mission.
On the surface the choice seems like an outrageous misalignment with the esteemed NBA brand. The NBA has some of the most athletically-impressive beings of the sporting world – poles apart from the effeminate 65kg pop idol. Yet the expensive decision is likely to bear fruit.
For a start, although the NBA already has an epic following in China including the largest social media fanbase of any sports league with 150 million followers, that only accounts for a small portion of China’s population. Like any business, they will be wanting to grow that base.
In choosing a target market, they will look to the Gen-Zs (those born in the mid-90s to early 2000s) as having a high propensity to support and spend on the game. Gen-Zs are an open-minded generation in a society that has never been so enthusiastic about sport, causing them to explore and embrace sports more than the generations before them. They’re also big spenders. Although most haven’t yet banked a single pay cheque, they account for 15% of household expenditure, versus just 4% in the USA and UK. As the only child/grandchild of six doting adults, and having never lived through tough times, they are free spending with seemingly few worries in the world.
You’ve probably guessed that many of Cai’s fans are Gen-Zs, and particularly females – another lucrative yet untapped sector by the NBA. Last year’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game featured Chinese-Canadian singer Kris Wu, which reportedly increased female viewers by 30%.
There are plenty of examples where endorsements of effeminate pop-idols have bolstered sales for brands in China, albeit most are more closely-aligned to each other’s core values than the NBA and Cai. Yet the NBA’s China fans are so deeply rooted in the game, they are unlikely to stop supporting the game en masse due to a Chinese New Year endorser who doesn’t fit the league’s image. Most brands in China would struggle to pull that off.
There have never been more options for consumers to spend their money. Sport – like everything – has to find ways to boost the entertainment factor to stay relevant. Whilst there would be better ways to entertain their loyal fan base, they are likely to entertain a segment who may have never considered the NBA before. Although many of the NBA’s execs are unlikely to get down to Cai Xukun’s music, they are putting their own opinions aside to attract a new and wider pool of fans. Hats off to the league for embracing China’s countercultures – those who dare to rebel from entrenched traditional values – something brands are increasingly having to do to reach the younger, freer-thinking generations.
On that note, we’ll leave you to celebrate the coming of the Pig. Happy Chinese New Year, wishing you a prosperous and productive Zhūnián. We’ll be back after the break – enjoy this week’s Skinny. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.