Two U.S. college basketball powers, the University of Washington Huskies and the University of Texas Longhorns squared off against each other Saturday in their opening game of the regular season. The Huskies prevailed, 77-71, but the final score was only part of the story.
The Pac-12 Conference match-up’s more lasting significance may lie in the fact that the game was played at the Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai in front of a mostly Chinese audience—making it the first regular-season college basketball game played in China. Not only that, in sponsoring the contest along with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, the Pac-12 became the first U.S. sports league, collegiate or professional, to host a regular season contest in the PRC.
Think of the inaugural Pac-12 China Game as a mash-up of collegiate sports, commercialism and cultural exchange. Although there’s a love ofhoops in China, college basketball is virtually unknown there. The Pac-12 wants to change that by building a fan base to generate revenue and promote the academic programs of its member universities. Today’s game is part of a Pac-12 globalization initiative that began last summer with a Pac-12 all-star team playing three exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing.
Meanwhile, Alibaba Group is expanding beyond its e-commerce roots into digital entertainment and content; the company in September established a sports group to “transform the China sports industry through the use of Internet-based technologies.”
As part of the Pac-12 China Game, student-athletes from the Huskies and Longhorns on Nov. 10 visited the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China, providing them with an opportunity to learn about China and the Internet, at the same time giving Alibaba’s employees a chance to see what teamwork looks like at the U.S. collegiate level.
“China is pretty good at the single sports,” Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma said during the teams’ visit, according to an Associated Press story. “Ping pong is very good, but we think China should focus more on team sports—basketball, soccer and volleyball. The world is very connected and China needs to work like a team with the [rest of the] world. If we cannot make our kids focus on that, it’ll be terrible in the future.”
At Alibaba headquarters the players met with Ma and Alibaba Executive Vice Chairman Joe Tsai, toured the campus, practiced at the Alibaba gym, and participated in an educational symposium on Alibaba and global economics.
Stressing the importance of strong China-U.S. ties, Ma vowed to continue the relationship with the Pac-12. Yesterday, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced the conference and Alibaba will hold another Pac-12 China Game next year between Stanford University and Harvard University. Scheduled for Nov. 12, 2016, in Shanghai, the game will be co-hosted by the Federation of University Sports of China, part of the country’s Ministry of Education.