US-China Sports Diplomacy: Three Questions with David Noel

David Noel graduated from UCSD GPS in 2014 with an MA in International Affairs and Management. He is now the co-founder of Red Phoenix Entertainment, a company that works to create connections between American sports and entertainment with emerging Asian economies, especially China. Their work includes the first sponsoring deal between Tampa Bay Lightning and a Chinese corporation, Linglong Tires, and working with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank to put together a commercial with NBA star James Harden.

Mr Noel sat down with China Focus recently for a short interview as part of our “Three Questions” series.

The interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are you working on now?

“Between securing endorsements for professional athletes and entertainers, bridging deals between Chinese brands and professional sports teams, and filming sports content, our plate has been very full. “

Our firm – Red Phoenix Entertainment – bridges US professional sports and entertainment with Asian markets –our core focus being the Chinese market. We work mainly on the marketing side of the sports and entertainment industry, helping brands to acquire and utilize celebrity endorsements, sponsor North American sports teams, place advertising at arenas and stadiums, and connect with target audiences via multimedia content. We also facilitate athlete exchanges – whether that be hosting a national sports team here in the US for customized training or bringing American athletes abroad to promote their brands in new markets.

Because sports and entertainment is a broad and diverse industry, we are constantly expanding our professional network, our industry knowledge, and our range of capabilities. We strive to become a one-stop shop for our clients, and “being in the know” and having a wide network of trusted service providers is key to doing that.

How has Chinese interest in sports developed over time?

It’s an interesting question, and I think the answer is also constantly developing. China of course has a long history of sport, and I am sure there are many Chinese historians who could paint that picture much more accurately than I could. Having said that, from my own perspective, Chinese sport really seemed to rise to global attention during the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, when the world saw how advanced the national teams were across multiple sports, and how willing the Chinese government was to promote them.

From the consumer side, China is very much a soccer country, with basketball coming a close second. The CFA (Chinese Football Association) and CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) are well oiled machines, and globally, there are plenty of Chinese endorsements, sponsorships and investments into professional soccer and basketball. There are a lot of reasons for this – the universal ease and low-cost of playing soccer and basketball means there are many Chinese playing these sports and therefore, many Chinese consumers interested in products that are associated with the sports. There is also a long history of FIFA and the NBA strategically pushing into the country.  And of course, we have seen star Chinese soccer and basketball players who brought a lot of pride to Chinese fans. Yao Ming is a great example of this, and the NBA is undoubtedly still enjoying the fruits of his success.

What I really find interesting and exciting is the rise of other sports in China.  Marathon running, dance, tennis, mixed martial arts, boxing, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, volleyball, ice hockey, BMX – many other sports have taken firm hold with young Chinese and we’re starting to see sponsorships and investments increase across these sports. I believe they will only continue to grow in popularity, especially as the world becomes more connected, and as Chinese continue to travel and to attend universities abroad. This trend is also partially connected with the burgeoning middle and upper classes in China, and many of these “non-traditional” sports are being used almost as a luxury good to display wealth and sophistication, as many are expensive to participate in and not easily accessible.  

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the sports industry in China. The Chinese government is encouraging the growth of this sector, and the emergence of the Chinese middle class and large Chinese population as a whole means there will always be a potential fan base somewhere in the country.

Does Chinese interest in US sports have a role to play in US-China relations more broadly?

Absolutely.  This would be a great research project for a UCSD Global Policy & Strategy student, by the way.

Sports are a universal language that we all understand, and at a fundamental level, it can be used as a tool to break down cultural, language and political boundaries. It brings us all together, as humans, in marvel of what the human body and mind can achieve.  On the flip side, it can also be used as a method for promoting nationalism, soft-power, and international strategy. I believe this is why the Olympics carries such strategic importance for governments across the globe. This is also why we sometimes see athletes being used as de facto ambassadors (i.e. Dennis Rodman and North Korea).

It has been said that the number of Chinese who play basketball is larger than the entire population of America.  It’s probably a safe assumption that many Chinese CEOs and officials are also fans of basketball, and being that the US is the epicenter of basketball, this topic could always serve as common ground when other discussions have hit roadblocks. The NBA and NHL also commonly host “China Appreciation” events at their games, giving an opening to Chinese ambassadors and Chinese communities to celebrate alongside their American counterparts.

The US-China Trade War has certainly impacted our business, as Chinese companies need to balance their own market interests with larger political considerations. But I think we have also seen that sports can transcend politics, and that there is still a healthy demand for US sports in China. I hope that our two countries continue to collaborate and find common ground, on the field and on the ice if not anywhere else. Collaboration in sports will always serve as an opening for dialogue at other levels.

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Eric Inumerable

Eric Inumerable is a graduate student at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy interested in U.S. foreign policy and national security. He is currently pursuing a Master of International Affairs with a focus on international politics and a regional focus on China.

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