He may have retired over 12 months ago, but NBA great Kobe Bryant still reigns supreme in China.
The former LA Lakers star, an 18-time NBA All Star, has been named the most popular basketball star online in the country, putting Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry — his nearest challenger — in the shade with twice as many social media followers as the two-time MVP.
“I’m so grateful to have been announced as the No.1 basketball star online in China,” said Bryant, who retired in April 2016, in a statement.
For the first time, Shanghai-based consultancy Mailman has analyzed the influence of the NBA, its teams and players in China, using metrics such as followers, engagement and digital presence. The data was collected from October 2016 to June 2017.
In February the company published results of its annual report into football’s digital dominance in China and found Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo to be the most influential footballer online.
Bryant’s legacy lives on
How did Bryant conquer China? The 39-year-old has visited the country he once described as “home from home” every year since 1998 — once performing a slam dunk on the Great Wall — and has signed endorsement deals with several local brands.
According to the report, Bryant has built on his legacy by “engaging with the Chinese community both online and offline.”
In six of the last 10 years Bryant’s shirt has been China’s best-selling sports jersey.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, who has no online presence in China, said: “I thought I was famous until I got [to China] with Kobe.”
On September 12, the former Lakers man was mobbed by fans when he visited the country to announce that he would join forces with NBA China and the Mission Hills Group to set up the country’s first NBA basketball school in Haikou, Hainan Province, which is expected to be completed in 2019.
Such is his influence, the Lakers were the most followed NBA team in China until Bryant’s retirement and have since dropped to fifth on the list.
Warriors winning digitally
Reigning NBA champions Golden State Warriors, regarded as one of the best team’s in history, were deemed the most influential NBA team online, while the NBA itself was the leading sports organization in the country with five times more followers on social media than the top three European football leagues (the English Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga) combined.
The NBA’s dominance can be partly attributed to its long history in the country — the first NBA game was broadcast by state television CCTV in 1986 — and the league’s multi-million dollar partnership with Tencent Sports allows for around 300 games to be broadcast free.
According to Mailman’s analysis, the five top-performing NBA teams were: Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, LA Clippers and LA Lakers.
But the NBA’s influence in China is not all encompassing.
Top European football clubs were more popular than NBA teams, mainly because, says the report, they tend to operate independently of their leagues and have invested heavily in the Chinese market.
For example, 14 European football clubs toured China in 2017 during their pre-season, while only two NBA teams have visited the country.