NBA China Is Loving Collabs, But Who's Wearing Them?

    Basketball might be a hit in China, but the cool factor of NBA fashion collaborations in the mainland is nuanced. Jing Daily investigates.
    Grace Chow is capitalizing on the popularity of the all-American aesthetic by tapping the NBA. Photo: Grace Chow
      Published   in Collaborations

    Over the years, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has proven its chameleon-like grasp on developing and honing its intellectual property (IP). The famous basketball league logo can be spotted embossed across mainstream products from the likes of Samsung, Taco Bell, Hello Kitty, and Reddit, as well as in elevated streetwear collections by Louis Vuitton, Canada Goose, KidSuper and Drake’s OVO label.

    In China, the NBA brand-licensing team has also been busy, with the organization’s IP frequently starring in clothing collections and product lines. Thanks to this collab frenzy, consumers who do not watch the game still don the merchandise.

    The brand has evolved to become a household name in China. An estimated 300 million people play basketball in the mainland, with the NBA being the most-followed sports league on local social media platforms; it boasts 42.95 million fans on Weibo, where the #NBA hashtag has generated engagement of 56 billion views and 770,000 original posts.

    For Spring 2022, Starter joined NBA China on a collection dedicated to the local streetball community. Photo: NBA China
    For Spring 2022, Starter joined NBA China on a collection dedicated to the local streetball community. Photo: NBA China

    First mover#

    The NBA became the first American professional sports league to play official games in China back in 2004 and now operates in the country as a local company, Beijing-headquartered NBA China, which was set up in 2008. Five investors — Bank of China Group Investment, Legend Holdings Ltd, Li Ka Shing Foundation, China Merchants Investments and ESPN, a division of The Walt Disney Company — collectively hold 11 percent of the company.

    The NBA remains the only international sports league with a legal team located in China. Therefore, brand-licensing processes run exceptionally smoothly.

    This was discussed in a 2015 interview with Ella Betsy Wong, NBA China’s Senior VP and General Counsel, who emphasized the importance of attracting more fans to the game. And, judging by the business’ activities over recent years, brand collaborations have become one of the main routes for it to do just that.

    From Starter Black label to influencer Grace Chow’s eponymous high-street brand, domestic names have wheeled out NBA-stamped capsules that often have little association with the sport.

    Symbol of American style#

    Much like other American IPs in China — including the infamous Playboy bunny, NBA logos are plucked from the world of basketball and utilized as a symbol to emulate American style in China.

    The popularity of the ABG (Asian baby girl) look that riffs on the “California girl” aesthetic, with winged eyeliner and tanned, fit physiques, is linked to the rise of NBA collaborations, according to Gen Z consumers Jing Daily spoke with.

    It’s the American retro, Brandy Melville and Bella Hadid-led trends that are thriving right now among China’s youth — think varsity jackets and vintage tees.

    Of the recent collaborations featuring the official IP, Grace Chow’s gained the most traction due to her fanbase; her namesake store is number one under Taobao’s “European and American style women’s streetwear” category, with 4.1 million subscribers at present.

    Grace Chow's accessible streetwear brand is one of the latest to incorporate the NBA's IP into a collection. Photo: Grace Chow Weibo
    Grace Chow's accessible streetwear brand is one of the latest to incorporate the NBA's IP into a collection. Photo: Grace Chow Weibo

    This year even saw Chinese tattoo artist Jax play on the popularity of NBA IP collaborations when he released a collection in February under the acronym ABA, short for Anarchy Basketball Association.

    Although brands recognize the utility of the NBA IP, their collaborations have not whipped up the same level of hype that would be expected from a sports league with millions of fans. For context, the #NBAcollab hashtag only has 8,458 views and six original posts on Weibo. On Xiaohongshu, where #NBA has 1.767 billion views, #NBAcollab has just 479,800.

    That low engagement rate illustrates how NBA fashion does not resonate with fans of the game. Furthermore, these collections are not aimed at hypebeasts, either — when discussing the reputation of NBA clothing, some young consumers refer to it as a mainstream, high-street fashion trend that does not appeal to style-conscious consumers.

    The NBA logo is deemed to be on the outskirts of what’s fashionable in China. Though, Chinese consumer interest in the all-American sports aesthetic is rising — take the Gorpcore and CleanFit trends, for instance. That, in addition to the growing adoption of streetball culture in China, suggests that the NBA IP has further to run in the mainland.

    When considering collaborating with the IP, brands should be aware of the connotations the NBA logo conveys locally. Yes, NBA tie-ups bring exposure to independent talent and high street retailers, but they are unlikely to win over the dedicated streetwear set.

    For more on brand collaboration, check out Jing Daily’s weekly Collabs and Drops newsletter — a weekly analytical lowdown on the latest news. Sign up here.

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