This is a post I’d been thinking about for a few weeks that got a major assist from Stephen Marbury himself when he showed up at Guoan’s match a few weeks back (and has promised to go next week). “Starbury”, a nickname he’d had from a young age, was a bigtime college prospect and had some great NBA seasons including being a two-time All-Star and being included on the 2004 “Dream Team”. The last few years were marked more by controversy and weirdness (including getting his brand’s logo tattoo’ed on his head) than on-court performances.
Coming to China has been a rebirth for Marbury. While neither of his teams have had much success, he’s personally been one of the league’s top players and a lot of interest surronds him. He’s helped to bring fans out (at least last year) and even singlehandedly forced a change in the salary cap, leading to more NBAers coming to China (for more on Marbury in China, check out Niubball). He’s created a loyal following of fans through his regular posts on Sina’s weibo microblogging system and directly communicates with fans everyday. In part, it’s about promoting his Starbury brand of shoes, but it also appears to be an honest effort to promote basketball and help the development of Chinese basketball.
So when will the Chinese Super League get a player of Marbury’s stature who can help promote interest in the Chinese game and serve as a conduit to the fans?
The Chinese Super League is losing out on top talent to places that offer similar salaries but less culture shock and more anonimity, namely the United States’ MLS. If Thierry Henry were to come to China, he’d be recognized and mobbed everywhere he went, but even in New York, he can walk the streets and not worry about being bothered by fans. The Chinese Super League is more than willing to splash the cash (look at the offer Changchun made to Zidane a few years ago or what Guangzhou is playing Cleo), but it’s about more than just spending money. The league’s reputation certainly plays a part, but culture shock and conditions shock (aging stadiums, bad pitches, crap training facilities) have a massive impact when players are considering where to go.
And yet NBA players still decide to come to China for the CBA, despite better conditions and the potential for more money in Europe. Chinese Super League players that have played here like Darko Matic, Walter Martinez, and Ahn Jung-hwan keep coming back and seem to be happy. But the stars, even minor names, don’t bother to make the trip.
Much like David Beckham going to the MLS opened the floodgates for other foreign stars to follow, one big name coming to the Chinese Super League would have the same effect. It would show that making the trip is possible and, if done rightly, that individual would sell others on the idea. Especially considering the size of the Chinese market, it’s not hard to see how a player would be interested in coming here and promoting himself while plying his trade.
The biggest problem for the Chinese Super League? How to get past the allure of the MLS. It’s a much easier choice and also, in most cases, a better payday. Who is the biggest foreign name to play in the Chinese Super League so far? Is it Ahn? Gasciogne never made it to the Chinese Super League/Jia A and his experience wasn’t a good one (fortunately for him, he probably doesn’t remember it).
Who will be the first and when? Or does it even matter?