When fans walked into Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland on Friday, they immediately noticed something unexpected. Their ears picked up some different rhythms and there were Chinese characters everywhere -- from the floor to the hoop, from the HD scoreboard to the smaller screens. The concourse was filled with Chinese cultural activities.
It was a regular Friday in the U.S. but the most special day of the year in China and other Asian communities. The Cleveland Cavaliers paid tribute to their Chinese fans by celebrating Chinese New Year, educating and engaging local fans with Chinese culture.
This was the second annual celebration for the Cavs and the NBA's sixth year with official organized events. Cleveland became one of the most popular teams in China after LeBron James returned in 2015 and won a title in 2016, so it was fitting that the defending champs opened the 17-day celebration of the Year of the Rooster across the entire league.
All 30 teams will have multiple games nationally broadcast in China on TV or streaming online during the New Year, and nine teams are going to have onsite celebrations on one of their game days. The Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors have been considered China-friendly teams for a while now, known for embracing the strong Chinese communities in their cities. Along with the Cavs, the Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards have worked to strengthen their influences by committing to China theme nights during the season.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves have also increased their efforts to break into the Chinese market. Minnesota has received a boost from Jiang Lizhang, the NBA's first Chinese minority owner, and the Wolves will play the Warriors in two preseason games in China before the 2017-18 season.
Just how big is the Chinese basketball market? Approximately 12 million people streamed the highly anticipated game between the Cavaliers and Warriors two weeks ago on Tencent, the NBA's exclusive digital partner in China (Disclosure: Tencent is also an ESPN partner). Two days later, the streaming numbers for the Thunder-Warriors games hit roughly 11 million. More than 20 million people streamed Kobe Bryant's farewell game last season. And that's just online; these games were also broadcast on TV in China.
During last year's Chinese New Year celebration, the number of unique television viewers reached a record 295 million, an 8 percent increase for CCTV's live broadcast from the year before, according to NBA China. A record 632 million video streams were generated on Tencent, an increase of 90 percent from 2015.
Most fans know that the NBA's revenue has soared in recent years, leading to the rising salary cap and booming player contracts the past couple summers. The financial incentives from investing in the global market are already clear for the league's owners and players. The NBA's streaming deal in China is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and star players can profit wildly off branding and shoe sales with the increased exposure.
Jersey and merchandise sales numbers in China help to justify the NBA's expansion strategy. On top of boosting the the global profile of its best players, the NBA's online flagship stores in China also set sales records during the 2016 Chinese New Year, exceeding 2015 sales by 135 percent.
NBA China CEO David Shoemaker considers these Chinese New Year celebrations as a way to give back to the Chinese people.
"We have the best fans in the world -- when I say best fans, I'm saying Chinese NBA fans specifically," Shoemaker told Lan Xiong Sports earlier this month. "We want to take this special opportunity to stop thinking too much about business, to simply say 'thank-you' to Chinese fans."
Also consider the league's social media presence. In a country that doesn't have Twitter or Facebook -- and a very limited number of people using other major American social media platforms like Instagram -- building fan engagement is a challenge. However, NBA China and multiple teams have established popular Chinese social media accounts. The NBA's Weibo account has 32 million followers, and accounts for teams such as the Rockets, Warriors and Cavaliers can reach more than 2 million followers on the Twitter-like platform. During last year's Chinese New Year celebration, more than 720 million impressions were generated on social media using #NBACNY, an increase of 33 percent over the previous year.
With new engagement efforts this year, it's likely the growth will continue.
"We actually internally developed an international team where part of their focus and their job everyday is thinking about growing the Cavs' brand internationally," said Brad Sims, the Cavaliers' chief revenue officer, who added that Cleveland hired a full-time employee from China.
"He's been a great asset to us as we communicate to companies in China and to the NBA league office in China."
The Nets, Rockets, Wizards and Warriors have also hired at least one full-time employee who is originally from China to specifically focus on business in the country.
Right after the most recent All-Star voting, all four Warriors who made the team -- Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson -- shot individual short clips thanking Chinese fans for their votes. A few days ago they made another series of videos greeting Chinese fans for the New Year in both Mandarin and Cantonese. The videos went viral on Chinese social media. Brooklyn's Jeremy Lin and Houston's James Harden also appeared in similar clips.
After the Cavs beat the Nets on Friday, Cleveland's All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving gave a shout-out to Chinese fans in a postgame interview with ESPN, mentioning his excitement for the Year of the Rooster. Earlier in the game, a family of six was laughing about and debating their English names in Chinese characters, which had been written on notes. There were long lines for dumplings and hundreds of posters were given away featuring a dunking rooster.
And most importantly to many Chinese fans, some of their favorite players took the floor in shooting shirts with Chinese characters.
So how has the NBA become the most popular American sports league in China? By doing it all.