It all started to provide coal miners some recreational viewing, but a major industry-sponsored basketball tournament may soon develop into China's own professional summer league.
The Lu'an Cup Major Coal Customers' Invitational Basketball Tournament attracted 12 CBA teams and sponsors to its fourth annual tournament last week, twice as many as the inaugural event in 2004.
Represented by Liaoning Panpan, tournament host and organizer the Lu'an Group lost 100-71 to the Tianjin Steel Factory's CBA charges, Jiangsu Nangang, in the final.
"Our aim is still to enrich the cultural life of our workers," director of the competition office of the Lu'an Cup Zhang Bin said.
"There is no commercial factors involved in the event, only that the play level is higher than before with more professional teams."
The play attracted so much local attention that some fans even forged tickets for the final, which saw Lu'an's Wangzhuang Mine's 4,000-seat gymnasium packed to the rafters.
The hundreds of would-be spectators who waited at the gates in a standoff with local police have prompted calls for much larger venue next year.
"The event has shifted from merely enlivening my workers' sports life and summer vacation to making our contribution to the development of basketball in China," Lu'an Group board chairman and general manager Ren Runhou said during the tournament last week in Changzhi, Shanxi Province.
Deputy general manager of Lu'an Group Liu Rensheng said many more enterprises were keen for getting a piece of the action, but just 12 of the 16 CBA teams were either worthy of corporate backing or available last week.
Players from last season's champions Bayi Rockets and runners-up Guangdong Hongyuan were busy with international commitments, while the CBA's bottom two teams failed to attract sponsors.
Only a veto by basketball's governing body stopped companies engaging foreign outfits such as the Lithuanian national squad.
The CBA sent two senior officials to the tournament, director of the League Office Hao Guohua and CBA Training and Science Research Department boss Gong Luming.
"The CBA did not exclude commercial matches for the clubs during the summer break," Hao said.
"But in some commercial tournaments, the play level is very low and thus the players did not gain anything."
Ren revealed that the CBA had even considered making the competition into its summer league.
Hao said the CBA and the Lu'an Group would continue their partnership with the view to reprising the NBA summer league, but said the appropriate time to form it would be after the Beijing Olympics.
"We'll add some commercial factors in order to make the event better," Hao said.
"And 10 million yuan for running the event is not a big problem for the 12 participating enterprises."
Ren said next year's event should be played at a new 10,000-seat gymnasium.
"We want to develop the event into a national competition with better management, excellent service and environment plus a new gymnasium," he said.
Former China National Team player Hu Weidong, now coach of the Jiangsu Nangang, said the 200,000 yuan his team won and the 20,000 match fee represented the most his players could earn during the off-season.
"It's really a good thing to assemble the best clubs to play in the tournament and also make money," he said.
To make participating clubs more evenly matched and the competition more attractive to sponsors, Liu Rensheng has proposed inviting about 50 international players to be drafted in similar fashion to the NBA, where the lowest-ranked clubs enjoy first pick.
If this eventuates, the competition will bear an uncanny resemblance to the NBA's summer league.
With such success, Lu'an Group no longer wants to remain as just an organizer.
"After the new gymnasium, we'll look for a decent basketball team and build a team of our own," Cao Chunming, Labor Union chairman of the Lu'an Group, said.
Source: China Daily