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A Soccer Fan at a Basketball Game: Comparing the CBA and CSL Experience

Beijing's Two Biggest Sports Stars: I bet Yang Zhi didn't have to take the subway to Capital Steel Gymnasium.

I get out of a cab and find myself in the middle of nowhere, a big mall’s nearby, across the elevated highway is a massive housing project, and in front of me is what appears to be your average Chinese small/medium sized gymnasium. If not for the typical Chinese red banner announcing that this is the home of Beijing’s CBA/WCBA team for the 2011-12 season and a few freezing scalpers tottling around, I’d have no idea I was in the right place.

It feels like I’ve suddenly left the capital and ended up plopped in any number of 2nd tier cities.  I never realized the Beijing subway system was connected to Baoding.  Despite many, many years in Beijing, I’ve never travelled to this part of the city before and it feels hard to call it Beijing.  In fact, 10 years ago it was all factories and farmland, though pre-Olympics Capital Steel moved further away from the city in hopes the air would get cleaner.  Real estate agents then proceeded to greedily buy up all the property they could get their scummy hands on.

I don’t want to dwell on the location, but we’re talking seriously bf’ing middle of nowhere.  Unless you live in Shijingshan or the outer reaches of Haidian, I can’t see bothering to go to many games.  The game ended at 9:15 or so and I didn’t walk into my door and down my first single malt to warm me up from the sudden appearance of winter until after 11 pm.

It appears the CBA, ie the Chinese Basketball Association the Chinese domestic league going strong in its 17th season, generally loves far flung cities and stadiums.  Unlike the Chinese Super League that centers itself in 1st and 2nd tier cities, the CBA seems to purposely reject these cities, instead challenging to survive in cities that time forgot.  There are no teams in China’s 4th city Shenzhen, but two teams in Dongguan, famous for nothing other than being the nation’s capital of prostitution.  The Fujian team plays its games in Jinjiang (instead of Fuzhou) and the Liaoning team plays in Benxi (instead of Shenyang).  There’s a team in Foshan, Taiyuan, and Yiwu.  And when CBA teams accidently place themselves in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, to make it “feel right”, they choose locations closer to neighboring provinces rather than the city center.

I’ve never really followed the CBA closely, but since I am allergic to Ming/Qing dynasty period TV shows and Korean dramas, Chinese television and I don’t get along, so my tv is rigged like a North Korean radio to only show Beijing TV-6, the sports channel, which means during the winter, I’ve slowly gained a familiarity with the Beijing Ducks, the local CBA side.  The league consists of 17 teams, all with a sponsor’s name and an English mascot tacked on, my favorite is the Fujian SBS Sturgeon (or is it Sturgeons?).

This season, with a weekend home opener and the world’s (2nd) biggest foreign Beijing Guoan fan Stephon Marbury on the team, I decide to buy tickets and brave my way across the city on subway Line 1 (standing the whole way), alighting at Pingguoyuan, which could just as easily be fucking Tianjin, except for the fact it would have only taken a half hour to get there.

As a Chinese Super League fan, I’m used to bad miss careless management and the CBA takes far more from the Chinese Super League than the NBA (score one for the Chinese Super League).  The season lasts from mid November until the beginning of April with all games starting a 7:30 pm.  The league schedule was announced only two weeks before the start of the season and in my hand now is not a ticket, but a voucher, printed online, which will allow me to then go to a machine at the stadium and get a paper ticket.  Unfortunately, there are only two of said machines hidden in the lower reaches of the stadium and nearly a hundred other people waiting to complete the alchemy of vouchers into tickets.  The only way this could be worse is if the machines were outside.  The experience is made slightly more worthwhile when all 7 feet, 9 inches of human freak  the only good part of Rush Hour 3 Ducks center Sun Mingming ambles by.

I finally get my tickets and enter the stadium to discover my seats are pretty good, hey, who knows what RMB80 would buy (score one for the CBA).  I’m sitting in the second row of the balcony, almost at center court.  The “stadium” (its very generous to call it that, my university’s basketball stadium could hold two and a half Capital Steel Gymnasiums) seats slightly over 5,000 and there’s hardly a bad seat in the house.  A good deal of fans have gotten there early only to ooh and aah as the players dunk during warm-ups while an MC tries to teach the fans how to cheer and clap (another for the Chinese Super League).  There’s almost no Ducks merchandise to speak of (+1 for the Chinese Super League) which is unfortunate because I kinda like the logo, but there is an area that appears to be the badminton court booking center/pro shop that on game days doubles as a concession stand.  They have popcorn, oreos, mini snickers, potato chips, and drinks being poured out of 2 liter bottles on offer.  But the saving grace is that they have beer (in cans) as well, two choices too, RMB5 for a Yanjing or RMB10 for a Heineken (+10 for the CBA).  Since I haven’t eaten, I grab a beer and a popcorn and return to my seat.

Since this is the season opener, Chinese love a show, and having grown up with the pomp that is an NBA pregame (hell, I think my Bulls invented the pregame introduction as spectacle), I’m expecting a lot, but there’s nothing, just reading off each players name as they come out.  The cheerleaders don’t look very bang-able and are definitely all not pretty enough to be flight attendants or medal presenters.  The game begins and it’s, well, sloppy is the politest word I can think of.  Without the foreign players, I think a lot of Chinese sides would struggle against a top US high school team.  Since there was no merchandise for sale, fans weren’t wearing team colors.  Although Beijing wears sky blue, black, and white, their “fan’s section” consisted of people in neon green tshirts which helped make green the most commonly seen color, since the number of fans who showed up in Guoan garb was in double digits.

The biggest cheer of the night was Gongti related, as a more suited at soccer chant of “傻逼换傻逼,越换越傻逼” (or something like “one asshole replaces another, the more they change the worse the asshole gets”).  The chant came at a dull moment when the crowd was silent (this could be describing pretty much every minute of the game) and was heard by everybody, somebody followed it with a “Guoan are Champions” cheer and then a third followed up with “Guoan, Guoan Beijing Guoan” eliciting a lot of laughter from the knowing crowd.

Big Guoan fan Stephon Marbury, or Starbury, one in a long line of “Coney Island’s Finest”, overhyped New York ballers, looks average, he leads his team with 29 points, but also leads them with 4 turnovers and goes 2-8 from the 3 point line.  He was helped by Zhu Yanxi, who contributed 23 points, and by the fact the “Jilin JiuTai Agricultural Bank Tigers” never really showed up to play, keeping it close without it ever appearing close, as Beijing won 103-90.  After the match, the media scrum around Starbury at center court was 10 deep and I hopped into a black cab, got back on the subway, and returned to civilization.

The CBA fan experience leaves something to be desired.  Much like the Chinese Super League, fans can’t argue that “they pay the player’s salary” due to the insanely cheap tickets and insanely high salaries, so they tend to get mistreated.  The team could play at NBA China’s Mastercard Stadium at Wukesong, only a few years old and much closer to the city center but don’t, most likley for the same reason Guoan doesn’t play at the Bird’s Nest, it would be too expensive.  The fans are an afterthought, there’s very little in the way of amenities (or even bathrooms), and have I mentioned the stadium is in the middle of nowhere?

That said, there’s beer on offer for only 5 kuai, so I might have to make the trip for another weekend match, maybe to see Bayi in the never-ending Wang Zhizhi retirement tour.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.



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