In February 2016, ESPN announced a collaboration with Tencent, China’s largest and most used internet service portal, and within a matter of months a new ESPN-branded section of QQ.com, China’s largest and most used online portal, was up and running. Under the agreement, Tencent’s live sports coverage and digital products in China are featuring exclusive Chinese-language (Mandarin) ESPN content — a combination of original and localized stories — with the NBA and international soccer being the biggest areas of focus, with some other sports content as well.
A Text Heard ‘Round the World
It’s no secret that relationships are the key to just about everything in life. This is certainly true for good journalism. A case in point is this week’s multiplatform piece on Stephon Marbury, produced by the digital editorial team creating content for ESPN’s Tencent collaboration, along with The Undefeated and SportsCenter. The SC Featured segment reported by The Undefeated’s Marc Spears and produced by Susan Ansman debuted in the Thursday SportsCenter Coast To Coast and is available across ESPN.
The story itself is about Marbury’s relationship with a country in love with basketball and how the former NBA and Georgia Tech star became a huge – and perhaps surprising – superstar with a chance to bring the sport, and his own legacy, to new heights in the most populous country in the world.
It’s a great story. But the outstanding journalism behind it has a narrative of its own, which began with a relationship and a connection, discovered almost by chance, halfway around the globe in Las Vegas. For that part, we checked in with Michael Huang, deputy editor, ESPN International, who leads the Bristol-based editorial team that is producing and translating content for ESPN on QQ.com.
How does a story about Stephon Marbury in China get its start in Las Vegas?
We were at the NBA summer league in Vegas last summer. I was just sitting there in the media center at the Thomas & Mack Center, and [ESPN Senior NBA Writer for The Undefeated] Marc Spears came sauntering over. We had never actually met, but I really enjoyed his writing, and we started talking. He knew I had just become editor for our team focused on content for the new section on QQ.com in China, and he says to me, “Yo, man, you know I’m best boys with Marbury.” So, I’m like, “Really? How well do you know Marbury?” Then he goes to his phone and sends a text, and about a minute later he shows me a text from Marbury: “Yo Spears, what’s up?” And I said, “OK. You do know him. Let’s do something here.” I had been looking for an initial flagship kind of piece for our original content for China, and I thought this could be it. I wanted a TV element combined with a really good written piece. So Marc’s Undefeated article is that piece.
How did the process evolve from Marc’s text in Vegas?
Marbury wasn’t sure he wanted to participate at first, but after he, me and Marc discussed it, he began to see that Marc’s piece would focus on his future. Stephon is turning 40. He’s realizing that he can’t play basketball forever. So we decided to talk about what he wants to do instead. He’s got ideas for more basketball academies in China, and he wants to groom someone to possibly take his place as sort of the new American who embraces Chinese basketball. He has really built his own legacy there. He opened the door, and has been the bridge to the U.S. Now a lot of NBA players see the opportunity in China, and it’s because they know what Marbury is doing there. It started with him. He really is a rock star over there. You can’t get a sense of just how big he is in China until you see it, so our SC Featured piece and Marc’s article showcases that and how he built his profile by embracing the culture first. Basically, he said, “You know what? I’m staying here. I’m not going back to the NBA. I love China.” And the Chinese fans love him for that.
But it wasn’t just about covering Marbury. You learned other things along the way?
Yes. The other part of this story is building relationships in China. The way we put the Marbury piece together, and as we work on all our other stories, we are learning something every day about China. Everything from getting clearances for video footage to getting the correct visas for camera crews or utilizing in-country crews. We are doing things we’ve never done before. It’s challenging, and there is a learning curve. Everyone knows there are 1.3 billion people in China, so the scale is enormous and that comes with complexity. Our collaboration with Tencent and the relationships we’re building with them and others in China are allowing us to learn. Plus, it is also allowing us to explore stories that have resonance in many other markets also. This Marbury story is not just relevant in China and the U.S. It’s a great story that will resonate in markets that love basketball, and it just happens to have grown out of our greater awareness and relationships in China.