When Texas faces Washington in men’s basketball on Nov. 14 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, it will mark the first time an American sports league, collegiate or professional, will play a regular-season game in China. And for the Pac-12, the game will be the start of a unique season-opening tradition.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a phone interview that the league has agreed to play an additional game in Shanghai in 2016.
“Basically my vision is that this will be an annual tip-off game, the way the Pac-12 starts off every year,” Scott said. “It’ll be a premiere team against a premiere non-conference opponent, a new tradition for how we start the season.”
The costs for the game the next two years will be covered by the Pac-12’s newest—and perhaps most significant—sponsor. The league has agreed to a two-year deal with the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant, to sponsor the Pac-12 China Game in Shanghai in 2015 and '16. The sponsorship hints at the potential for overseas companies to become involved with college sports.
“It’s hard to know from a historical context to tell which are the tipping points,” Scott said. “But this feels significant to me. The fact that we are partnering with a company like Alibaba, the biggest E-Commerce company in the world, validates the vision and the significance of what we’re doing.”
The step is also a seminal one in the business world. This marks Alibaba’s first major sponsorship of an organization in the United States, sports or otherwise. The game will be televised on ESPN in the United States and distributed live in China via Alibaba’s mobile and digital platform. The Chinese basketball market is one of the most coveted in the world, as an estimated 300 million people in the country play the sport.
It’s a significant step for the Alibaba, which has 350 million users and had an IPO in the states in September. For Alibaba, the Pac-12’s trip there—which will include educational components—fits with its roots. Jack Ma, the company’s founder and one of the wealthiest men in China, is a former English teacher who learned the language by giving tours to American tourists in hotels.
“For the Pac-12 to take a regular season game there, it shows great respect to China,” said Jim Wilkinson, Alibaba Group’s senior vice president of international affairs. “I think what the Pac-12 is doing groundbreaking.”
In December 2011, Scott flew to China to begin an initiative to court the country as a potential long-term market for the league. The game in November in Shanghai will be the most significant manifestation of that effort, which has included sending six teams—both collegiate and Pac-12 All-Star—on playing tours of the country.
One of the highlights for the Washington and Texas players on this trip will be visiting Alibaba’s headquarters on Nov. 11, the biggest online shopping day in the world. They’ll also meet Ma.
Scott declined to reveal the financial specifics of the deal with Alibaba, but did say they are significant enough to cover the costs of the games. As for the potential of China become a viable market for the Pac-12 in the long term, Scott said it’s too early to tell.
“I definitely see a lot of potential for our activities to grow and the interest to grow,” he said. “Exactly where that takes us is really hard to say. There’s a lot of potential to expand in a lot of different ways. There’s a great foundation of interest, bringing the best from America to China.”
The biggest basketball storyline will be the debut of Texas head coach Shaka Smart, who left VCU for Austin in April. But for the Pac-12, the potential start of an annual game in China serves a bigger purpose.
“It’s bigger than athletics,” Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said in a phone interview. “It’s who we are as a university and a conference. We’re here and ready to break new ground and do new things.”