Joshua Smith and the Bruins were a popular attraction in China last month. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
BEIJING — Somewhere around the sixth or seventh photograph, Joshua Smith struggled to keep that big smile on his face.
It was still early in the UCLA basketball team's recent swing through China, a stretch of three exhibitions in seven days, and the Bruins had already grown accustomed to drawing attention.
At the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, on the streets and in shopping malls, people crowded around.
A large group that had been celebrating some or other occasion with bottles of beer approached Smith during lunch at a popular restaurant. He smiled and shook hands and picked up several ladies who wanted a snapshot in his arms.
"You've got to do it," the 6-foot-10 center said. "To be nice and not be rude."
The scene played out perfectly for Pac-12 Conference officials who came along on the trip, interested in something more than good manners. As Commissioner Larry Scott put it, "This is a first step in what I hope will be a long journey."
In an era of mega-conferences — generating mega-revenue — the Pac-12 simply cannot match rivals such as the Southeastern and Big Ten when it comes to rabid fans. But with schools dotted along the Pacific Rim, it can pursue a different sort of consumer.
Sport business experts say the conference and its new television network are well-situated to establish a foothold in China, broadcasting games and selling merchandise to an enormous, sports-hungry market.
"It's a land grab over there," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You have this built-in population of fans, and basketball seems to be one sport that has a tremendous following."
The NBA has been working for decades to cultivate fans in Asia, signing deals with corporate sponsors and opening offices in Beijing and Shanghai, the cities where UCLA played last month.
An estimated 300 million Chinese play basketball. That translated into 10 million people watching weekly NBA telecasts on a government-run network last season. An additional 52 million followed the league through social networks.
"They're a long-term partner," said Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International. "We've worked with them on virtually every level of the game."
The Pac-12 is in position to share the market if only because, as Swangard said, "you cannot ignore geography."
Thousands of Chinese students attend Pac-12 universities, so people in the Far East are familiar with the schools.
UCLA's visit represented a trial run in what could become an annual exchange between the Pac-12 and the Federation of University Sports of China (FUSC), with teams crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean.
Basketball is only part of the potential collaboration. The conference — strong in Olympic sports — might find an audience for volleyball, water polo and gymnastics.
If deals can be negotiated with Chinese television, the Pac-12 has a wealth of broadcast content to send abroad.
"As the landscape for Chinese media changes, I think there's an ability to profit," Swangard said. "You can sell those games to distributors in China and there's not a tremendous amount of additional cost."
But that doesn't mean the conference can expect profits to start rolling in tomorrow.
The NBA and others have discovered that doing business in China can be difficult, and the league has not enjoyed the quick success it initially envisioned, sports marketers said.
UCLA's tour last month hit more than a few bumps in the road. The Chinese seemed ill-equipped to promote the games, so crowds — while loud — fell short of capacity. Only one of the three games was televised and university arenas lacked souvenir stands that might one day sell merchandise.
To a lesser degree, UCLA team assistants had to mop a dusty court at one practice facility and Coach Ben Howland limited drills for fear of players slipping. At Shanghai Jiao Tong University, tipoff was delayed as workers scrambled to fix nets that kept slipping off the rims.
Developing a workable and profitable infrastructure could take years. In China, it's all about forming connections — a dynamic known as guanxi — which entails negotiating layers of bureaucracy and getting various entities on the same page.
"There's an art to every deal that involves more players than most deals done in the U.S.," said Swangard, who annually leads academic trips to China. "The government is woven into the fabric of everything. 'Yes' doesn't always mean 'yes' when you're sitting across the table from someone and think you have an agreement in place."
The dynamic is familiar to Scott. The former executive for men's and women's pro tennis spent decades running tournaments in Asia. He knows that patience is key.
As part of a so-called globalization initiative, the conference hired Shanghai native Carrie Xu to help with marketing.
"When you're thinking in terms of China," Scott said, "you have to think long-term."