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How Popular Is Basketball in Asia?

The beauty of the jump shot is not something Asians learned from a professional basketball coach. It was YMCA missionaries in the 1890s who brought the sport to China, the Philippines, and Korea. And these were not some amateurs, but pioneers of basketball, having taken part in games held in Springfield, Massachusetts, the sport’s birthplace. 

It did not take long for basketball hoops to start popping up in urban centers like Shanghai, where in the 1920s, basketball was popular among students. Korea was not far behind the hype, establishing a basketball federation in 1925 in Seoul.  

On paper, basketball’s largest fan base is in Asia, with over 300 million Chinese actively following the NBA, meaning the best world league has more fans in Asia than on home turf. 

So, where does basketball stand in Asia?

The Birth of FIBA Asia

On the international stage, Asian countries are never perceived as strong contenders. European teams and the USA are always the dominant force. However, that didn’t stop the Philippines from winning the bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup in 1954. The island nation took a leading role in promoting the sport that arrived at its shores in the 1910s. 

The idea for setting up the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) was initiated in 1958 during a meeting in a Tokyo hotel when 6 basketball officials from different Asian countries discussed the concept. Two years later, in 1960, the first championship of the Asian Basketball Confederation was held in Manila, Philippines.

Seven nations participated in the tournament, which served several objectives, such as qualifications for the World Cup and the Olympics. Yet it also allowed Asian countries to compete in a format sanctioned by the international basketball organization.

Small Circle of Winners 

The Philippines dominated the ABC championship in its early years, winning three out of the first four tournaments. However, the balance of powers changed after 1975, when officials in Manila decided they would only send amateurs to play in the ABC. This decision opened a big window for China. Since then, China has won the trophy 16 times. 

The games were rebranded in 2005, adopting the name FIBA Asia Championship. The name change didn’t alter the on-court picture. China continued to dominate, with South Korea being the perennial runner-up throughout the history of the tournaments. Although South Korea managed to win two titles, Japan has also won a title. 

The Philippines have 5 triumphs at the FIBA Asia Championship, while in recent years, Iran and Australia are emerging as powerhouses. Since 2007, Iran has won three titles, and Australia is the current champion, claiming the throne in 2017. The next showdown is on the schedule in July 2022 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Professional Leagues on the Continent

The facts do not support the idea that basketball is not popular in Asia. The NBA is the only American league with a serious following on the continent. Regionally there are numerous professional leagues, such as the Chinese Basketball Association, the Japanese B.League, Thailand Basketball League, the Korean Basketball League, and the Philippine Basketball Association, among many others. Each of these leagues functions with professional teams, with some producing players that have embarked on NBA journeys.

Apart from competing in domestic leagues, teams get an opportunity to test their skills in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup. The best teams meet to decide the champion every year, ever since 1981. The current reigning champion is Alvark Tokyo. 

From a historical perspective, the tournament is evenly matched, but Iranian teams are getting the upper hand in recent years, with 6 wins since 2007. 

Basketball’s Future Is Bright in Asia

There are about 300 million people that play basketball recreationally in China, and currently, two players from Japan are on NBA rosters, and about a dozen have made the long trek to the best league. 

The incorporation of the FIBA Asia Champions Cup winners into the FIBA Intercontinental Cup, starting in 2023, is another signal that the sport is getting the boost it needs to mobilize even more youth in Asia. 

There has been a rising interest in Thailand and Vietnam for basketball in recent years too. With the emergence of online sportsbooks, fans are multiplying by the day. Some believe basketball betting will encourage the development of a larger fan base for basketball. 

As Asians wager on the outcome in regional leagues, they will have to be knowledgeable about teams, which will result in promoting basketball to higher levels in Asia.

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