Kobe Bryant is very popular in China, and now he’s becoming even more involved.
One of the great curiosities in modern sports is the Chinese people’s lavish affection for Kobe Bryant. During last year’s Beijing Olympics, he was greeted with a rapturous reception and mobbed everywhere he went. He appears in commercials and on billboards, has a popular Web site and had a reality show on Chinese television. He sells more NBA jerseys there than Yao Ming.
On Tuesday in Los Angeles, the love affair will reach a new level. Not only is Mr. Bryant accepting an award from the Asia Society for his work as a “cultural ambassador,” the ceremony will be attended by Liu Peng, China’s Secretary of Sport and a member of China’s Communist Party Central Committee.
China’s embrace is largely an appreciation of Mr. Bryant’s basketball talent—he won his fourth NBA title earlier this month with the Los Angeles Lakers. “He reminds everyone of Michael Jordan,” says Shen Zhiyu, a senior basketball writer for Titan Sports, China’s largest sports daily.
But it is also a reflection of a deliberate campaign by Mr. Bryant to make inroads in the world’s most-populous country. In addition to his frequent visits to China (a planned trip in late July will be his fourth in as many years) and his considerable work on behalf of sponsor Nike, he’s assuming another identity: philanthropist.
In an attempt to tap into the Chinese government’s growing interest in promoting charity, Mr. Bryant is establishing the Kobe Bryant China Fund. The organization will partner with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, a charity backed by the Chinese government, to raise money within China earmarked for education and health programs. Mr. Bryant’s existing fund, the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation, will also work to strengthen ties between the two countries by teaching middle-school students in the U.S. about Chinese language and culture. Mr. Bryant declined to say how much he is donating to the fund.
We will probably see many more athletes get involved with China, as it’s one of the largest markets in the world, and it’s largely an untapped market. Chinese investors recently bought a minority stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers, so we can probably expect LeBron James to increase his exposure in China as well.