More than 300 million basketball fans in China will get a taste of American collegiate hoops later this year thanks to the Pac-12 conference and a somewhat surprising partner: Alibaba Group.
The Chinese e-commerce tech giant — essentially the Amazon.com, eBay, Google, and PayPal of China, all wrapped into one — is sponsoring the first-ever U.S. regular season men’s basketball game (NBA or NCAA) to be played in its home country when the University of Washington and the University of Texas square off in Shanghai on Nov. 14.
Alibaba is the presenting sponsor of the game and has exclusive rights to distribute the live feed across its mobile and digital platforms. The company is also hosting a “China academic program” for the visiting U.S. student athletes, who will travel to Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou to practice at the company’s athletic facilities and learn more about the technology and business trends happening across China.
On a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai — also known as the “right-hand man” to Alibaba founder Jack Ma — said the game is a huge deal for Alibaba.
“This is very, very meaningful for us from a value standpoint,” he said.
Tsai, a former Yale lacrosse player, noted that Alibaba is focused on bringing a global perspective into its organization, which is expanding internationally after the company debuted on the New York Stock Exchange last year in a record-breaking IPO.
“We’ve done a lot of cross-border e-commerce things in terms of internationalizing our options, like bringing the best American products into China for Chinese consumers,” Tsai said. “This game is emblematic of that, bringing over what we see as the best of U.S. college athletics in terms of level of play, but also with an emphasis on academic excellence.”
Tsai added that Alibaba likes how sports can teach certain values, particularly for its own Chinese employees.
“At Alibaba, one of our strongest cultural values is teamwork,” he explained. “This doesn’t come naturally in China, because you have single-child families and kids going through school who haven’t participated in organized sports. We think sports teaches a lot of great values — teamwork, discipline, hard work. As a company, we feel we have a responsibility to train our young employee base to espouse these things.”
Alibaba has actually focused on sports recently, and just this week announced a new holding company called Alibaba Sports Group that will “transform China’s sports industry through Internet-enabled technologies.”
Tsai said that Alibaba, which also inked a deal with Kobe Bryant this summer, is “very, very long-term positive” about the business potential in the sports entertainment industry.
“We have 367 million active users shopping everyday on our platform,” he said. “We ask ourselves what other types of services and content we can make available to our consumer base, and entertainment — in particular sports — is going to be a big thing in the future.”
Alibaba is also trying to make its mark in the U.S., where the company opened a Seattle-based engineering office and a data center in Silicon Valley during the past year. Tsai talked about Seattle on the conference call.
“We have an immediate connection to the University of Washington because of our new office in Seattle,” he said. “We’ve been recruiting some people and students from there.”
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that the UW immediately expressed interest when the conference first pitched the idea of a regular season game in China. He noted a “tech-forward,” pioneering spirit of the university, which already has other connections to China.
“This type of thinking is part of the DNA of the university,” Scott said of UW. “They embrace technology and are very much looking west toward China.”
The original idea for the November game stemmed from the Pac-12’s globalization initiative, which has already helped bring student-athletes for all-star and exhibition games in China. Scott said that playing an actual men’s basketball regular season game “is really taking it to the next level.”
“This represents a very significant milestone and a truly historic moment,” Scott said.
The UW vs. Texas game, held at the 18,000-seat Mercedes Benz Arena, will air on ESPN in the U.S. at 7 p.m. PT on Nov. 13. Alibaba will also sponsor a second Pac-12 regular season game next year.
Editor’s note: GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper will spend 10 days in China this November, covering the technology scene. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas.