Chinese investors nab a piece of LeBron James as sports go global

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Professional basketball has become an international game. Many of today's stars have come to the U.S. to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA), so it should be no surprise that foreign investors are eager to join them in the bouncy world of bling and adulation. The recent purchase of 15 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers (the team of superstar and NBA MVP LeBron James) by a group of Chinese investors is only the first step down that road.

The investor group, led by Kenny Huang, took a 15 percent stake in the team, joining majority stock holder Quicken Loans' Dan Gilbert. Basketball has become very popular in China, especially since Yao Ming, the mainland-born center for the Houston Rockets, has become a star. One report claims that 300 million people now play the sport there.

Wikipedia currently lists 69 countries beyond the U.S. that have players in the NBA, including five from China and one from Chinese Taipei. The Cavaliers, one of two teams currently playing for the Eastern Conference championship, played a series of exhibition games in China before the start of the 2007-08 season. James was also a member of the 2008 Olympic team that avenged previous U.S. humiliations by bringing home the gold medal.

Basketball is a sport that thrives on its star attractions. Unlike football, where injuries can end a career overnight, or baseball, whose arcane rules baffle those who did not grow up with it, roundball stars usually have long careers. Michael Jordon blazed the trail to world popularity, and with such adulation comes huge financial opportunities -- and eager investors.

There is a problem lurking, however, for the NBA, the NFL and other sports (like soccer) that have become popular worldwide: travel. Extending professional leagues around the globe offers tremendous profit potential, but a sport with franchises in, say, the U.S., Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai, Mobutu, Munich and London would scheduling problems and jet-lagged athletes.

Nonetheless, it will happen. The famous line from one of the great sports movies, Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money!" was never more appropriate now that the Chinese own 15 percent of LeBron. (That's about one arm's-worth, btw). I believe that we'll see a franchise from at least one major U.S. sport on another continent by the end of the next decade, probably several. Mexico City for baseball seems a no-brainer. Northern European franchises could save a struggling NHL. Basketball in Europe and perhaps the Far East is a slam dunk. (Here's an idea, NBA. Buy one of the old Concorde jets so teams can fast break to Shanghai and back.)

And maybe, just maybe, the effort to popularize professional soccer in this country will finally pay dividends to owners like Red Bull and Hunt Sports. The world continues to grow smaller, now down to 10" in diameter, which looks like a baseball in the talented mitt of one of China's favorite stars, LeBron James.

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