China's Basketball Chief Rises to Challenge

China's Basketball Chief Rises to Challenge

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Stepping into the position as CEO of NBA China seven months ago, David Shoemaker could never have predicted just how quickly basketball in China was about to change.

On July 1, exactly one month after starting the job, the dispute between the NBA and its players over salary caps reached a breaking point, resulting in a lockout that resulted in Shoemaker's debut season being cut in half.

One week later China's basketball superstar Yao Ming, who played a critical role in drawing in many of China's 37 million strong NBA viewers, announced he was retiring from the court after an awe-inspiring 10-year career.

Now, as the delayed 2011 season begins, players such as J. R. Smith and Kenyon Martin, who signed to play with the Chinese Basketball Association during the lockout, find themselves in a difficult position, wishing to return to the NBA but under full-year contracts in China.

It has been a busy few months for Shoemaker.

But despite rocky waters, the 39-year-old Ottawa native continues driving the NBA's decade-long China hot streak, getting back to the sport's grassroots and continuing the search for China's next Yao Ming.

"What I find so fascinating about this role is that no single day repeats itself," Shoemaker told China Daily in an interview on the 19th-floor of the NBA's Beijing headquarters, overlooking the central business district.

"The experiences are so varied because the business runs the gamut, whether it's dealing with sponsors one day or the government the next day."

And Shoemaker is no stranger to the everyday challenges of running a sports franchise in China.

He was introduced to the rigors of China's sports industry in 2005 when, working with the Women's Tennis Association, he began traveling east to promote the sport at a time when Li Na had yet to popularize it.

Officially becoming the head of the WTA's China operations in 2007, Shoemaker had the task of opening and operating the association's first Beijing office as China was beginning to prove itself on the global stage.

"For tennis in particular at the time the opportunity was quite ripe. It had been just at the Athens Olympic games where a Chinese pair had won the doubles gold and kind of surprised the world in doing so," he says. "Olympic success had come early for women's tennis in China."

The same year Shoemaker became head of the WTA, in the US, the NBA's top two Chinese players, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian, were making NBA history as their respective teams faced off, drawing a record 200 million Chinese viewers and making it one of the most watched games in NBA history.

Shoemaker recalls that when he was with the WTA he looked to the NBA as a model.

"I was always looking at the NBA as really the gold standard of professional sport in China. It's something we always set our sights upon when we were trying to model our business. It seems so funny to be saying that as I sit here today."

He attributes the NBA's success in China to the number of partnerships it has managed to forge with Chinese media and social networking sites.

With 25 seasons hosted on the sports channel of the China Central Television (CCTV 5), partnerships with Chinese web portals Sina and Tencent, and more than 36 million followers on micro blogs, he says the NBA is the most followed US sports code in China.

"That's more than double the combined fans and followers of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League globally. And that's just what we have here in China."

Even as the NBA enters its protracted season following the lockout, with no Yao to draw the Chinese audience, Shoemaker remains confident that the NBA will continue to enjoy success in China.

"So much credit should go to Yao for how far the popularity of basketball has come in this country. So much so that he helped create a whole generation of highly sophisticated basketball fans who now cheer for more than one player and more than one team."

With Yao spearheading China's fascination with the NBA, China's fan base has now become a self-propelling force, with basketball fans across the country fascinated by what Shoemaker calls a "captivating sport to watch both on and off the court".

"For me the NBA is not just the biggest sports brand in China. For me it's one of the biggest commercial brands, period, in China."

Shoemaker started his working career as a lawyer in 1996 after graduating in law from the University Western Ontario in Canada. Shoemaker soon found himself working for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the same law offices that once employed the NBA commissioner David Stern.

Given the chance to join the WTA as a litigator, Shoemaker was able to combine his passions.

"What I was able to do at a young age was transition from practicing law to combine my professional interest in law with my personal interest in sport."

Now as he steps into a position where he can influence the NBA's direction, he says he will focus on continuing to develop basketball in China.

By working with the Chinese Basketball Association organizing referee programs and opening the Dong Guan Elite basketball school, he says he is staying "true to the core of the NBA".

"My strategy is to make sure we develop the game of basketball. More dribbling of balls and shooting of basketballs."