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East Asia Super League: Inside a basketball startup with a unique vision

East Asia Super League: Inside a basketball startup with a unique vision

It’s only a matter of time until the East Asia Super League is a household name globally.

The EASL launched in 2017 as an invitational tournament for the top-two teams from the best men’s leagues in China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. The East Asia Super League marked the first time that the premier teams from China’s CBA, Japan's B.League, South Korea's KBL and the Philippines' PBA faced off against each other. These tournaments became massively popular in Asia, most recently drawing 117 million viewers over a six-day span in 2019.

Past EASL events featured notable players such as Lance Stephenson (Liaoning Flying Leopards), Shabazz Muhammad (Shenzhen Leopards), KJ McDaniels (TNT KaTropa), Jared Sullinger (Shenzhen Aviators), Jameel Warney (Seoul SK Knights) and Domantas Motiejunas (Shandong Golden Stars).

Now, for the first time, the EASL is becoming an actual league with a home-and-away season that tips off in October. Eight teams will compete over the course of six months, culminating in a Final Four tournament with a $1 million prize for the winning team. It’s essentially the Asian-basketball version of soccer’s UEFA Champions League. 

With a valuation of $100 million, a 10-year exclusive deal with FIBA and high-profile investors such as Jalen Green, Baron Davis, Metta Sandiford-Artest and Shane Battier, there’s no question that the East Asia Super League is gaining momentum.

“I think the league is really going to be the first Asia-originated sports property that’s going to be capturing the hearts and minds of fans globally,” EASL Commissioner Matt Beyer told BasketballNews.com.

In order to do that, the EASL is getting creative and taking cues from some unlikely influences. One might expect an up-and-coming basketball league to follow the same blueprint as the NBA or EuroLeague. Instead, Beyer is channeling Formula One and K-Pop as he looks to grow the East Asia Super League.

“We’re taking a lot of lessons from the K-Pop industry and, with our content, from Formula One and what they’ve done with their ‘Drive to Survive’ reality series,” Beyer explained. “We’re trying to make the league relevant to as wide of a fan base around the world as possible.”

After years of struggling to increase viewership and find mainstream success (particularly in the United States), Formula One racing finally took off in recent years. F1 races saw their average viewership jump from 547,722 in 2018 to 928,000 in 2021. What was the key to their success? A reality show on Netflix called “Drive to Survive.” 

The show gives an inside look at the Formula One World Championship, focusing primarily on big personalities and behind-the-scenes drama. Fans became invested in these characters, which gave them a rooting interest and a reason to watch the races. It has been an absolute game-changer for Formula One, and other sports leagues have taken notice.

Soon, the EASL will launch a reality show of their own that will spotlight three-to-five players from each team, documenting their lives on and off the court.

“We're about to announce a partnership between two really big production companies – an experienced Asian content production company and a US-basketball-storytelling production company – to do a 10-episode, 30-minutes-per-episode type reality show that we're working on distributing on one of the major global platforms such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, etc.” Beyer said. “For our non-core markets, we’ve also considered distributing the reality show together with our broadcast rights. There are a lot of things that need to happen between now and when that show hits the market, but basically we want fans globally to be able to access the East Asia Super League through this type of product and use it as an inroad to hook them. Like, ‘Hey, this league is pretty cool. I've never thought about Asian basketball, but these guys that are featured in the show are interesting and I want to keep following this.’”

As the league looks to market its players as characters and generate support from a global audience, that’s where Beyer hopes to learn a thing or two from the K-Pop industry. 

“I just visited Korea right after the country opened up in April,” Beyer said. “As we’re doing our media-rights deals in Korea, we’re looking at the entertainment groups like CJ E&M and YG and these groups that have manufactured the highest-grossing K-Pop bands globally. How do we take the principles of K-Pop and variety shows and put that into a sports context? The way that I look at it is we have so much to learn in terms of how to create a storyline around a player or make a fan club around a certain group of players or a certain concept. For us, it’s really about being sponges. While our team may know a lot about basketball and making highlight reels and all of that, we need to figure out how to leverage those best practices that have been tried and true in the entertainment industry and transfer them into sports. 

“The reality of the situation is that Asian basketball will benefit from having this platform where the top teams get together and play on a regular basis, and that will help Asian basketball as an aggregate and help their national teams perform better in key global competitions. But at the same time, there’s still a huge gap between the level of talent in the NBA and the level of talent in Europe or Asia, so if we want to be a globally relevant league, we’ve gotta pick up the slack somewhere and it’s not necessarily all on the court.”

Beyer, who previously worked as a player agent and a translator for NBA teams, hopes the EASL can attract all kinds of fans – whether they’re watching because their favorite team is competing or because they really like a certain player after watching the league’s reality show and social-media content. 

“We want fans to understand the personalities in the East Asia Super League,” Beyer said. “We want people to be able to access the league and basketball however they feel comfortable. That’s sort of our mentality: we’re here to serve the fans and we’re here to add value to our commercial partners. It may not be in the same way that domestic leagues in our markets operate, and it’s certainly not the way that the NBA operates. But we want to make sure that in our ecosystem, there’s something for every fan.”

The pandemic forced the East Asia Super League to shift its approach. Not only did they abandon the tournament format in favor of a home-and-away season, they started prioritizing content. 

“For us, it was really an opportunity to change from an events company to thinking and acting more like a media company,” Beyer said. “From 2017 to the end of 2019, everyone was just totally focused on preparing for a big tournament, executing said tournament, wrapping up the tournament and then we’d start preparing for the next tournament. During COVID, we started to really focus on producing short-form content and presenting Asian basketball from a lifestyle perspective and doing storytelling around the players in a way that had never been done before in Asia. I think storytelling is really important, and we want to be the best basketball storytellers out there.” 

Since pivoting, the response from fans has been overwhelming.

“From when we did our first short-form video in June 2020 to now, our engagement is up over 1,200%. Our video plays are up over 2,000% and our cumulative social-media following is right now very close to a million followers,” Beyer said. “We're growing at about 20,000 followers per week. So, the fans love it and they want more. And we're gonna have so much more to give the fans once our games start on October 12. I just feel like the top is gonna be blown off at that point.”

There’s no question that the EASL is on the rise, and Beyer is already thinking about how the league will expand going forward.

“We're going to offer a really awesome product for fans in this first season, and then we're going to grow and expand rapidly,” Beyer said. “By season three, we’re going to expand to a 16-team format and it will be four small groups of four teams playing into a Final Four competition. The city that holds the Final Four competition will rotate on an annual basis. We’re going to keep upping the prize in subsequent seasons too. It starts at $1 million and we're going to increase it after we operate a few seasons.”

The EASL recently made headlines when they added Jalen Green as an investor-ambassador. Green, who is of Filipino descent, became the highest-drafted Asian-American player when the Houston Rockets selected him No. 2 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. Bringing in Green, Davis, Artest and Battier is a significant step for the EASL, and the league may add more notable investors soon since they are in the middle of another fundraise. 

“To be a globally relevant sports property coming out of Asia means that these alliances with NBA players and other global superstars are really important for us,” Beyer explained. “I've known Metta for over 10 years from his trips to China when he was still an NBA player and when he went over to play in China [in 2014]. We've always kept in touch and I've always thought Metta is a good guy. He loves Asia so much, and he's benefited so much from China in his career, so he really wanted to be a part of this. With Baron, he was the first NBA player to sign with Li-Ning, and he’s a guy who's always tried to sort of do things his own way and be a little bit different. He’s also someone who has a startup ecosystem that he's really fostering with his own Baron Davis Enterprises. And then with Shane Battier, he played alongside both Metta and Yao Ming for such a long part of his career and did so many tours to Asia with Peak. 

"They had all heard about the East Asia Super League, so it was more so just trying to explain the vision. I think they all understand the potential of the markets. And they also feel that the leagues need innovation to really take it to the next level. We’re all thinking: how can Asian basketball become as relevant in society as the NBA is in the US?”

Beyer is setting lofty goals for the East Asia Super League, believing that it can become one of the biggest basketball leagues in the world. 

“We want to be the premier basketball league in Asia,” Beyer said. “We want to be a pioneer in terms of true sports entertainment for the Asian fan. But we also want to be a top-three league in the world in terms of fan-base size and commercial revenue by 2025.”

Part of Beyer’s confidence is because of his belief in Asia overall.

“I mean, the 21st century is really Asia’s century,” he said. “The growth is all in Asia and the opportunity is really in Asia; that’s just where the money is going to be going forward, especially if you contrast that with the direction that the European market for basketball is going at the moment. Asia is on the rise; everyone knows it for pretty much every other part of the global economy, and for the sports economy, it's coming… If you're bullish on Asian markets taking more of an emphasis on experiential economy and health and wellness and that entertainment generally is growing in the region, then you should bet on the East Asia Super League.”

Basketball is insanely popular in Asia, which also makes the EASL a safe bet to succeed. Beyer has been blown away by the passion and support he’s seen throughout Asia, particularly in the Philippines.

“Just about everyone – men and women – between 6 and 60 years old in the Philippines loves basketball,” Beyer said. “The population is a little over 100 million. I saw a statistic that, on average, 52 million people across the country watch a live basketball game on broadcast every single week. I mean, that's half of the country! It's impressive. If you look at most NBA teams’ Facebook, I would say they have more fans from the Philippines on there than from the US. That’s the reality of the situation. And if you look across the region, the media-rights values for basketball are growing.”

The NBA’s Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts have more than 24 million combined followers from the Philippines — the most of any country outside of the United States. And based on average viewership and reach, the Philippines draw the second-largest average audience for NBA games behind only the US.

“The fan support we have in the Philippines, I think, is among the most amazing things I’ve witnessed from the data side for the demographics of the NBA,” said Kevin Esteves, the NBA’s associate vice president of digital strategy and analytics. “For that country to represent such a significant portion of the consumption we have on a person-to-person basis, they just love the NBA; they love the stories and the players. Our content performs exceptionally well there. We see support from countries all over the world — in Europe, Australia, Africa and so on — but the Philippines really stood out to me. I think that ties back to a lot of the globalization that the NBA has done, with some of its global games being held in Manila. That’s been critical and we’ve seen that show up in the numbers."

"The NBA is the most popular sports league in the Philippines, with 98% awareness among the general population," added Matt Brabants, the NBA's senior vice president and head of international content partnerships.

However, these fans also love the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), which has posted incredible ratings in recent years. The PBA Governors Cup between Barangay Ginebra and Meralco recently drew 3.6 million viewers (or 17% of the total population watching TV).

Dating back to the EASL's tournaments, there's been no shortage of viewers or interest.

“Our first tournament had 21 million viewers, and our most recent one in September 2019 had 117 million viewers over the course of a week,” Beyer said. “The support is really special. I think when you have any kind of start-up business, you have to see how the market reacts to it. We did a lot of due diligence prior to starting this to understand that this would be a concept that people would like and that fans would get behind, but you never really know how everything is going to go until the rubber hits the road. 

“We’ve had a soccer version of this with the AFC Champions League in Asia since 1996, but there’s never been anything in basketball that brought everyone together like this. In 2016 when we started to go out and do fact-finding on this, that was [the big question]: ‘Why hasn’t this happened already?’ And then we realized that these leagues don’t really have much interaction and there had been no dialogue. Really, just being there to facilitate the dialogue and bring people to the table in and of itself was sort of a revolutionary thing at that point.”

After getting all of the decision-makers on the same page, Beyer spent the last five years building trust with the leagues, teams and FIBA.

“We had to build trust, so putting together the tournaments between 2017 and 2019 was the way to do that, and it was also a marketing tool to the stakeholders that we can make this happen,” Beyer said. “We have revenue-sharing deals for commercial revenue with the leagues. We have appearance fees and prize money for regular-season wins. We have this big $1 million prize at the end of the season. We handle all of the travel costs for the teams. We really derisk this for every single party involved so that participating in the East Asia Super League isn’t something where we’re twisting anyone’s arm. It should be something fun for the teams and it should be an honor for the teams.

"It's really about proving yourself against your regional competition. This is exciting, it’s different. If you're always playing against the same competition in your backyard, it becomes a bit of a vacuum, an echo chamber. Being able to go out and see a diverse group of opponents is something special, and it just hasn't happened in this environment. It has never been done before."

The East Asia Super League is demanding your attention. Soon, with an assist from Formula One and K-Pop, it very well could be the next big thing in basketball.

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