The NBA and Chinese refrigerators

The Warriors come out to play, with a big assist from Haier, an appliance manufacturer looking for some globalization branding love.

Published May 4, 2007 4:21PM (EDT)

No, this is not just an excuse to wallow in the hamstrung Golden State Warriors' exhilarating victory over the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Playoffs. Well, maybe a little bit. But did anyone besides me notice that these particular playoffs were brought to you by Haier, the huge Chinese appliance and consumer electronics manufacturer?

There's always been something of a love affair between China and the NBA, and it didn't start with the arrival of Yao Ming. Basketball has long been hugely popular in both China and in Taiwan -- I can remember learning to my delight in the early '90s that some Taiwanese basketball fans referred to "Michael Jordan" as the "flying-high-in-the-sky sage cow." (A phrase that, shockingly, returns no results from Google, so I can't tell you what the exact Mandarin is.)

David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, has made no secret of the NBA's plans to expand its presence in China. But last night was a globalization gut-check. One of the raps against China is that, unlike Korea or Japan, none of its big companies have made a splash globally, in terms of having a recognizable brand. Lenovo, the computer manufacturer, is the only one that comes close, and that's mainly because of the press it received for buying IBM's PC division. But last night, basketball fans around the world -- and what serious basketball fan did not want to watch the Warriors upset the Mavs! -- got to see a Chinese company famous mostly for manufacturing mini-refrigerators make its best effort to grab global brand mind-share. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you, "The Haier NBA Playoffs."

The partnership turns out to have been in existence since April 2006, when Stern, observing that the Chinese market for the NBA is second only to the U.S. in size, announced that the deal was "very significant, because we've had many global marketing partnerships, but here we have the No. 1 brand in China entering a global partnership with us." During the regular season, the marketing deal manifested itself on a low profile, with "Haier Play of the Day" branded video highlights, and "Haier Race to the MVP" snippets.

But this year's playoffs seriously ramped up the exposure. And, judging by a recent story in Forbes on Haier, one can see this both as a sign of globalization togetherness and as a result of fierce globalization pressures. Forbes reports that Haier used to rule supreme in China, but now is seeing market share and profit margins come under attack from new domestic challengers and foreign invaders, like Whirlpool, who are taking advantage of how China's "entry into the World Trade Organization has opened the door to foreign brands through eased manufacturing investment rules and modernized retail and logistics industries." So boosting brand awareness isn't just an expansion strategy, it's a stab at survival.

And there you have it: I guarantee I am the only person on the planet who woke up this morning thinking, I know how to connect the WTO to the greatest upset in NBA history. Thank you, thank you very much.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Chinese Economy Globalization How The World Works