Yao Ming CBA reform

Yao Ming set to play biggest game of his life

Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming may be best known for his on-court exploits, but he’s now facing a challenge of a very different sort as he looks to reform Chinese basketball. In a Chinese sports version of Bannon vs. Kushner, the big man is battling “the establishment” in order to gain influence behind the scenes. But the obstacles he’s facing may be so entrenched that the entire sports industry in China is affected.

Rumors started to circle earlier this year that Yao Ming would be appointed as the new head of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), and despite resistance in certain quarters – including this editorial from state-run news agency Xinhua which called him too young and too inexperienced [link in Chinese] – he seemed the obvious candidate.

He’s played professional basketball in both the US and China, he’s been an owner of the Shanghai Sharks in the CBA since 2009, he’s studious, respected for his achievements both on and off the court, hugely popular and is a towering presence in more ways than one. The only obstacle was that every previous CBA head had been a government official,  but once the decision had been made to break with that tradition, there could be only one – and no one was holding out for Stephon Marbury to take the job, now that’s his six-year stint with the Beijing Ducks has come to an end.

But for all the talk about Yao being the man to bring about much-needed reform to Chinese basketball, there is now a real danger that he will end up being little more than a figurehead in a cat-and-mouse game between reformers and traditionalists – something that could have wider significance outside just basketball.

Chinese basketball: 2 for the price of 1

News broke last week that the men’s national team will now be split into two parallel sides for the next two years, with each team taking alternate turns in international competitions such as the 2017 Asian Cup and the 2018 Asian Games, before reuniting into one team for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

On the face of it, it’s a strange move that has already drawn criticism from fans and pundits alike: some have argued that two teams with two  different styles might struggle to combine into one further down the line, others feel that one side is bound to be favored over the other, while another criticism is that there’s barely enough top-level talent to justify one team, let alone two.

After all, the teams may as well be called Team Yi and Team Other, such is the prominence of Yi Jianlian in the post-Yao era, and it’s not yet clear how the teams will be divided, though two head coaches, each supported by foreign assistants, are expected to be named shortly.

On the positive side, reasons for the change include increased competition – not only for players, but for coaches, too – and more opportunities for younger players to reach the top. In fact, if only one new player is able to break into the current version of the squad by the time the basketball world comes to China in 2019, it could be argued this experiment was worth it. But even taking these reasons into account, it’s still a bizarre  move, and one that doesn’t appear to follow any precedent from national teams elsewhere.

Previously, in addition to the senior national team, China had an Under 23 team – the so-called ‘Olympic team’, even though their real Olympic team wasn’t restricted to Under 23s – which was basically a development squad for the senior team. It was similar in some ways to squads in the Olympic soccer tournament, which largely consist of U23 players, but the China ‘Olympic’ basketball team didn’t have foreign coaches and only a few support staff, meaning that its goal as a development squad went largely unfulfilled. The new set-up in China sounds very different, especially as both teams will have foreign staff and equal resources.

But, more importantly, splitting – or doubling – the national team wasn’t exactly what the reformers had in mind when they applauded the promotion of Yao to the CBA’s top spot, and this is where things start to get interesting. Yao was known to have long harbored ambitions to reform Chinese basketball, so why kick things off with a gimmick that many think could hinder, rather than help, the sport?

One of the issues is that national team success has long been prioritized over the commercialization of the league, or, in fact, over anything that could be seen to detract from national glory. Unfortunately, things haven’t been going too well in that regard. Here’s a quick summary of China’s record in major international competitions post-Yao:

  • 2010 World Championships: (W-L record) 1-5, 16th place
  • 2012 Olympic Games: 0-5, 12th place
  • 2014 World Championships: did not qualify
  • 2016 Olympic Games: 0-5, 12th place

While China has also won medals in a handful of lesser, regional competitions during that span – as well as suffered more embarrassments – there’s no denying the results have not been up to scratch, hence, perhaps, the national team reform.

However, reports shortly after Yao’s appointment to the CBA said that he wanted to focus on three things: split the league into two conferences, while increasing the number of games from 38 per season (compared with 82 in the NBA); reduce the national team’s training period, while adopting an NBA-style invitation system; and cut down the playing time of non-domestic Asian players in the CBA.

Those reports were quickly dismissed as “fake news” by the authorities, but if there was any shred of truth – and there usually is – it raises the question of whether the national team gimmick was in fact Yao’s second – or even fourth – choice for reform.

There are so many areas that need looking at when it comes to basketball – or, to quote Yao himself, “Chinese basketball has no so-called biggest problem, but problems everywhere” – that it immediately raises the question why Yao would choose to start with something that, for all the cited benefits, doesn’t really look like it will make much difference at all.

China’s peculiar sport governance situation

A Xinhua article last week claimed that Yao had already enacted “considerable structural change” since his February election, saying that the CBA had gained control over the sport’s governance at the start of April when the work carried out by the administrative center of basketball, a sub-division of the State General Administration of Sports, was transferred to the association.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.

Francesca Chiu‘s excellence piece on the issue explains:

Chinese basketball is technically governed by both governmental and non-governmental organisations. In reality the difference between the two is blurred by the practice of “One Personnel, Two Boards,” meaning that officials at the Chinese Basketball Management Centre (CBMC), a division of the government’s General Administration of Sport [GAS], are also personnel at the CBA, which is the nationwide non-governmental sports organisation and non-profit association that manages the country’s premier CBA League.

Chiu continues:

Yao’s appointment would seem to mark the beginning of the end of the “One Personnel, Two Boards” system at the CBMC and CBA, giving the latter more freedom to reform the league. But the actual significance of his election and its impact on Chinese basketball, for now, are unclear.

The fact that the CBMC retains substantial control over the CBA as outlined above will make it difficult to convince people that reforms increasing the association’s management power and autonomy are possible. And now Yao, previously an active advocate and reformer outside of the national basketball management system, is being absorbed by it – raising the question of which side, Yao or the establishment, will be the first to yield.

This will sound eerily familiar to followers of Chinese football, which has been attempting to reform itself from within for more than a year, ostensibly to separate itself from government control. But, of course, nothing in China is ever free from government control.

Earlier this year, for example, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) had carefully laid out plans – which had been discussed and agreed by Chinese Super League clubs – to slowly reduce the influence of foreigners on the league, by gradually scaling back the number of imports allowed in the matchday squad and on the pitch. But once the headlines over the transfers of Carlos Tevez et al were deemed to have created too much negative attention due to the extortionate amounts of money involved, orders came down from on high – in the middle of the transfer window, no less – to cut the slots available for foreigners with immediate effect. Another rule was issued at the same time to promote young Chinese talent by ensuring that each team starts with an Under 23 player, but it was so badly implemented that, two months into the season, teams are regularly substituting their U23 player just minutes after the start of the game, in open rebuke of the new rule.

And in another example of China’s “One Personnel, Two Boards” system, a source at a company who’s been working with the CFA told me that the money for certain CFA-related projects is coming not from the CFA, but from the General Administration of Sport (GAS) – the very organization the CFA is supposed to have split from.

It seems that if you separate an entity from the government under the guise of “reform”,  the main consequence is that the entity simply loses its power. Unfortunately, it appears the same thing is happening to the CBA, with this hindrance to genuine reform an endemic problem throughout Chinese sport.

You don’t have to look any further than Li Na to find a recent example of how reform has paid immediate dividends. Once she was released from the state system and able to set her schedule and choose her own coaches, Li went onto to win two Grand Slam titles, catapulting the sport to a whole new level in China and inspiring a new generation of players.

In other words, it can work.

But true reform means making unpopular decisions and undermining entrenched interests, and until Yao Ming is allowed to do that – or is able to force through some real change – the future for Chinese basketball won’t look too much different to its past.

With the sport authorities making all the right noises about the need for reform, hopes were high that the great man would be the one to turn the sport around, but if even Yao has to operate with one hand tied behind his back, don’t expect basketball, soccer or anything else to modernize anytime soon.

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