The Pac-12 is headed to China.
We knew this already, as the conference announced that Texas and Washington will be opening up the 2015-16 season with a non-conference tilt in Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. It will be the first time any American professional or collegiate league has played a regular season game on Chinese soil.
But according to a story from Sports Illustrated on Wednesday morning, this is just the first step in a partnership that the conference is hoping will extend to future seasons. In other words, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott wants to start every season with a game in China.
“Basically my vision is that this will be an annual tip-off game, the way the Pac-12 starts off every year,” Scott told SI.com’s Pete Thamel. “It’ll be a premiere team against a premiere non-conference opponent, a new tradition for how we start the season.”
There’s more to this than just a simple basketball game, however. Thamel explains:
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.
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.
This is a unique and innovative idea from Scott, as he tries to build the all-important brand and grow the footprint of his conference. The Chinese love basketball — this isn’t a secret — and if he can find a way to generate interest in the sport and his conference, it’s certainly a good thing. Maybe it creates a new recruiting ground for the teams on our west coast. Maybe it helps bring more money into the league. And while it may be better for the conference as a whole than the players themselves at this point, what’s the downside? A chance to visit China and to play in a game that has, quite literally, never been played before?