Which Sport is Winning the Race for the Soul of China?

Examining the international expansion strategies of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB as they take their games into the land of the Red Dragon.

I1915, the first edition of ‘Youth Magazine’ hit newsstands in Shanghai. The paper was founded by Chen Duxiu — an author, professor and revolutionary socialist — who would go on to form the Communist Party of China several years later. Youth Magazine focused on the struggle of the Chinese people and railed against the long-entrenched feudalistic system. In 1917, the magazine changed its name to ‘New Youth’ and shifted its headquarters to Beijing, following Duxiu’s appointment as a lecturer of Chinese literature at Peking University.

The magazine found itself a passionate new editorial staff in Beijing, and its pages became a voice to challenge the thinking of classical China. One of those challenges came in the form of an essay published in 1917, titled ‘A Study in Physical Culture’. The essay spoke about how China needed to transform its national physique, to counteract the ‘sick man of Asia’ perception that it has earned throughout the 19th and early 20th Century. To do so, a culture of physical strength would have to be cultivated, and would likely require a concentrated effort by the state to do so. The essay concluded that only when the population was made strong psychically could the country hope to exert its strength and influence both in the region and around the world.

That essay, authored by a young Mao Zedong, would become the framework for China’s emphasis on sport, competition, and psychical fitness over the next century. However, it would also usher in a complex and often strained relationship between sport and the state, as Mao would ban popular sports like baseball and golf, which he believed promoted Western and elitist values. That tension would come to a head during the Cultural Revolution, as Mao viewed China’s Sports Ministry as one of the greatest threats to his rule, leading him to purge the Ministry of its entire leadership.

After Mao’s passing, sports became a way for China to encourage the psychical health of its people, a huge boon to the country’s economy, as well as a way to demonstrate China’s strength to the world.

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On this week’s episode of the ‘Schtick to Sports’ podcast, the panel explores how China’s relationship with sports is changing, the role of technology in this evolution, and what North American sports leagues are doing to stake their claim there.


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Show notes:

  • Why is the Chinese sports market so appealing to North American pro leagues?
  • What is happening in China right now that is causing this expansion by pro sports leagues into the country?
  • What are some of the historical, cultural, and societal factors that leagues have to deal with when trying to expand into the Chinese market?
  • What has the NBA done to gain a foothold in China?
  • Why has the NHL struggled in its expansion into China?
  • Was it a mistake for the NHL to skip the 2018 Olympics in South Korea?
  • Are Major League Baseball and the NFL closer to the NHL or the NBA in their respective approaches to China?
  • What other North American sports have a chance to capture the attention of the Chinese market?
  • Which league is winning the race for the soul of China?


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