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Fledgling basketball league winning over fans

Released at: 06:51, 20/06/2018

Fledgling basketball league winning over fans

Photo: VET Magazine

With its third season about to get underway, those involved in Vietnam's national basketball league feel encouraged by the sport's growing popularity.

by Ngoc Lan

Not many people know that Mr. Le Dang Khoa, who is now a “shark” in the gameshow Shark Tank Vietnam, is also the owner of the Danang Dragons, a professional basketball team that won the first season of Vietnam’s professional basketball league, the Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA), in 2016. “It’s an interesting investment and brings long-term value to basketball in particular and sport in Vietnam in general,” he told VET.

Though popular around the word for a hundred years, the VBA is now approaching just its third season in June, with more attention expected from basketball fans as well as investors during the summer. 

The VBA now has six teams: Saigon Heat, Cantho Catfish, Thang Long Warriors, Hanoi Buffaloes, Danang Dragons, and Hochiminh City Wings. “Those involved in the VBA are very passionate about sport and really want to create another option besides football for young people in Vietnam,” Mr. Khoa said.

Investors on board

One of the first investors in the VBA was Mr. Nguyen Hoai Nam, the owner of Cantho Catfish in the Mekong Delta. He told VET he chose Can Tho city because it already has a strong grassroots presence in basketball and is the “capital of the Delta”. The team finished at the bottom in the first season but then finished second in 2017. It’s now keen to be champions in the third season. “Investing in basketball is similar to investing in a startup, as it’s creating a product that meets community demand,” Mr. Nam said. “Like running a business, there must be a business strategy and the right personnel. It’s entertainment but also a professional sport.”

Unlike Cantho Catfish or Danang Dragons, the Hanoi Buffaloes have been through a number of ownership changes in the first two seasons, with the league announcing in late April that the Hanoi Buffaloes Company, owned by Mr. Huynh Minh Viet, is taking over from the Toan Gia Han Company. Having studied in the US he was exposed to the NBA - far and away the best league in the world. “I was at some of the Hanoi Buffaloes’ games and then had the chance to invest in the team to make it more professional,” he explained. “I believe that sports in general and basketball in particular are promising markets for investors.”

The Thang Long Warriors, meanwhile, owned by Ms. Tracy Thu Luong, joined the VBA in its second season and won the championship at its first attempt. It’s a great story for the game in Vietnam, with a club winning in its first year showing that anything is possible. 

Ms. Tracy was a sponsor during the VBA’s first season. “I could see the potential of basketball in Hanoi, with the opening of basketball training centers,” she said. “We then established Thang Long Warriors, as a natural development from supply and demand. Basketball in Vietnam is a promising sport and fairly well-developed already.”

In an interview with local media, though refusing to divulge any specific figures, Ms. Le Ngoc Huyen Tram, Manager of Saigon Heat, said that revenue from sponsorship, advertising, ticketing and brand activities have been positive for a fledgling sport. Mr. Khoa also noted that the VBA has attracted a lot of funding and spectator numbers doubled in the second season compared to the first. 

Maintaining an investment

Investing in basketball comes from a passion for the game among owners and a desire to develop sports in Vietnam, especially basketball. For most if not all, however, the initial years see losses racked up of various degrees. 

According to Mr. Khoa, basketball is a complex business and investment in sport is inherently risky, as expectations may well not be met. “Five or ten years may be needed to bring the game into the spotlight, which is actually a short period of time,” he said. 

Agreeing, Mr. Nam explained that although the number of spectators court-side and watching at home is growing, basketball remains new to most sports fans in Vietnam. Gaining popularity means changing viewing habits, from watching for free to paying for tickets and going to games. Calls for funding are problematic, as sponsors want to see more spectators. “Revenue is heavily dependent on sponsorship, ticket sales, and team merchandise, but these are still small sums compared to annual operating costs,” said Mr. Nam from Cantho Catfish. “Team owners have had to cover losses in the first two seasons.”

Owners have different strategies for making their investment pay off. Mr. Nam plans to build a complete and professional basketball club with its own gymnasium and a training facility that produces young and gifted players, not only for the Cantho Catfish but for the VBA in general

As champions, Thang Long Warriors are working hard to create a good brand identity and better secure its financial capacity while improving training facilities and taking care of player welfare. “These bring attention to the brand,” according to Ms. Tracy.

With his first season as boss of Hanoi Buffaloes on the horizon, Mr. Viet has put together a good staff and is looking at different models for development. Investment in basketball has its challenges, he told VET, and owners have identified it as a long-term deal. “Professional basketball in Vietnam is still in the ‘planting’ stage, not the ‘harvest’ stage,” he said. 

Ms. Tracy is optimistic and recognizes that, like any investment in a new field, it will take time to break even. All of the owners are excited about the new season and the future of basketball in Vietnam, and the initial popularity of the VBA gives them good reason to feel confident.

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