Back in 2014, the Chongqing Flying Dragons were one of two new expansion teams in the CBA and like most expansion teams, they weren’t really any good. Although they had one of the better scorers in the CBA in Willie Warren, the team sucked hard and finished bottom of the standings with a 4-32 record. Yet now the Dragons are moving to a different city less than a year after making their debut in Chongqing.
Barely a week after the Dragons’ debut season had ended, reports started coming out suggesting that players were not getting paid. The team appeared to be in disarray and sponsors were presumably starting to cool on a roster that was plainly bad and going to remain so for years. The growing unease opened the door for a group of Beijing investors to buy the team and in turn move it to the Chinese capital. That was months ago but it appears that things are finally falling into place and the Dragons presumably Beijing bound.
Whilst there is still time for this move to fall apart (and remember, in 2013, the Shanxi Dragons were famously bought by a different group of money men from the capital only for the team to stay in Taiyuan), there is a growing sense of momentum with the current move. In Chinese sport, it is not uncommon for owners to move their teams to different cities or even different provinces simply because they can. But the move to Beijing itself is fascinating given that the relocation seems based on business opportunities rather than personal whims.
By moving them to Beijing, the Dragons’ new owners appear to be chasing what they see as an untapped market. Currently, the capital city is basketball crazy thanks to its only team, the Ducks, winning three out of the last four CBA championships. The majority of the games are in the giant Wukesong Arena and critically, all of them seem to sell out. Beijing is undoubtably an elite sports city by Asian standards (one need only look at the fanatical popularity of the city’s biggest soccer club), although the point is that Beijingers support their teams and put their money where their mouth is to do so.
Whether Beijing can support a second basketball team is a fascinating question and the Dragons’ new owners are about to spend several million RMB find out the answer. If it works out and people come to the Dragons’ games because they can’t get tickets to the Ducks, it would mark a huge development for the CBA. For years, teams in China have run at a loss and relied on state or private funding to keep them afloat. In turn, the league and the Chinese basketball federation seem content with this relationship as long as the CBA continues to create players for the national team.
However, the Chongqing move is a new development. If it is a success, it proves that China has legitimate basketball markets and savvy owners should target them instead of placing their team in the middle of nowhere. There will be some fantastically wealthy owners who will be content to keep his or her prized roster in third tier cities in Fujian but others might want to look around for better value.
However, there are a number of obstacles that suggest that Chongqing’s relocation could also be a unique situation, at least for the time being. Firstly, political connections in various provinces could stop teams moving from or into certain areas. Moreover, Chinese sports fans can be notoriously fickle, particularly in the major cities. The Shanghai Sharks, for example, struggle to sell out if the team isn’t doing well. In 2012, most of the games were sold out as the team chased a play-off run under the triangle offense of Daniel Panaggio. Less than a year later, Shanghai quit on their team once it started to languish in the bottom half of the league. The fact that a city of 18 million people still can’t regularly fill a 5,000 seater arena shows what happens once punters loss interest in China.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s basketball boom has been helped by the Ducks having huge amounts of success, a marquee foreign player (Stephon Marbury), a high profile member of the national team (Sun Yue), one of the best coaching minds of his generation (Min Lulei) and a network of wealthy financial backers. Chongqing have none of these things and Warren, the team’s best player, recently jumped ship to Zhejiang. It feels like a tall order to hope that Beijingers are going to adopt an underdog Dragons franchise after several years of success with Marbury and friends. Finally, when the Ducks’ run of success inevitably ends, it is also unclear what will happen to the level of basketball interest in the city.
All of this means that the Dragons, if they actually move (and because this is China, it will come down to the wire), are going to be a fascinating situation. Should things work out, we could be looking at a new era in a previously loss-nonchalant CBA. But if it fails, this could be the continuation of the old landscape for many years to come.