The independent news organization of Duke University

Beyond Basketball

I boarded a plane with the Duke basketball team Aug. 15 headed to Shanghai for an international basketball tour that would bring us completely around the world in two weeks. Traveling on a chartered plane and staying in five-star hotels, on the surface, the trip sounded like a high-budget vacation. The Dagger, a Yahoo! Sports blog, wrote a story estimating the cost of the plane at $1.3 million, and Deadspin called the tour “pretty much the most Dook thing ever.” This sentiment seemed to oversimplify Duke’s ambitions for the trip.

The tour was conceived by administrators to promote the school’s international expansion with its most visible asset—its basketball team. Duke plans to open a campus in Kunshan, China that will serve undergraduate, global health and business students. As administrators in Durham attempt to build support for the campus despite a more-hesitant-than-expected response from faculty, the basketball team was sent abroad on a goodwill mission to familiarize China with the Duke brand.

The concept of an international tour for the basketball team is not new. In 2002, the team took a trip to London to take advantage of the NCAA’s policy of allowing an international trip once every four years provided the travel does not interfere with classes. Teams are allowed 10 extra preseason practices in preparation for such journeys. The Blue Devils’ coaching staff organized such a tour during Duke’s four-day Fall break so that the team could start its season early. That trip was a blur. Duke played four games against European professional teams in two days, leaving little time for anything other than basketball. “It was very condensed, so we really didn’t really have time for sightseeing,” associate head coach Chris Collins recalled.

The lengthier August tour of Kunshan, Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai was designed in a way that allowed Duke to use its basketball team away from the court. This time, the team stretched its four games over 14 days, making room for sightseeing and interaction with the community. The public relations objectives were obvious. Before games in China, head coach Mike Krzyzewski spent time not in the locker room but hobnobbing with local leaders, media and even Duke Trustees Xiquing Gao, Janet Hill and David Rubenstein. Krzyzewski and Director of Athletics Kevin White shook hands and exchanged kind words about basketball and Duke’s interest in China. The team held open practices, toured the Kunshan campus and allowed a film crew to shoot days worth of footage for a documentary.

From a basketball perspective, the trip was an obvious success. The players said they benefited from the extra practices and the team won all four of its games. They also climbed both the Great Wall and the Burj Khalifa, which is currently the world’s tallest building. Whether the trip was a success for promoting Duke Kunshan University’s campus is a more complicated question, especially given that some of the effects of the effort may not materialize for months and years to come.

I could see that the biggest hurdle for Duke basketball promoting the University’s global image is that the NBA’s popularity in China dwarfs that of college basketball. Mike Cragg, senior associate director of athletics and one of the main orchestrators of the trip, said he knew before the Blue Devils left the United States that the professional game is far more popular among the Chinese.

Great Wall

In contrast with the NBA figures in attendance at some of the games—Grant Hill, Doc Rivers, Yao Ming and Michael Beasley—Cragg said the Duke players were relatively unnoticed by fans, save for those who gawked at their exceptional height. The culture gap hit me when I saw how much more interested the fans were in Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers than his son, Austin, one of the top incoming player in college basketball. “Clearly the NBA game is what dominates their sports world,” Cragg said from his office two weeks after we returned from the trip. “They didn’t know who Nolan [Smith] was, they didn’t really know who Miles Plumlee was. But they sure as heck knew who Doc Rivers was, Grant Hill, et cetera. To me, that’s the biggest illustration.”

Of course, Duke’s goals are long-term. President Richard Brodhead has repeatedly said that the reason the University requires a presence in China is because of the critical role it will play in global affairs in coming decades. Just as the Kunshan campus is still under construction, this trip is a part of building a presence expected to grow in coming decades. Duke hoped to familiarize the media with its name, knowing full well that in many cases the Chinese would be hearing about the school for the first time.

In part, the trip gave Duke officials the opportunity to meet with corporate leaders, government contacts and media personnel, said Laura Brinn, director of global communications. She noted that the team received significant attention both before and during the trip. Major news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, the Shanghai Daily and the China Daily ran stories about the team. The tour also gave the University an opportunity to start social media accounts on Sino Weibo and Youku—Chinese Twitter and YouTube equivalents. So far, the Weibo account has 605 fans. Back at home, the GoDuke website generated 2.5 million page views while the team was in China and Dubai, White wrote in an email.

“By any measurement, this trip was incredibly successful for Duke,” he said.

It was clear from the ground, however, that the Duke brand still has significant room to grow in the country. Although the stadiums did not release official attendance figures from Duke’s games, the arenas looked a little bare, particularly compared with the sold-out crowds of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke Athletics estimates that 22,500 fans were in attendance: 5,000 in Kunshan, 6,000 in Shanghai, 8,000 in Beijing and 3,500 in Dubai. Given the capacities of the venues, these estimates mean that in the three games in China the Blue Devils drew spectators in just under half of the total seats. Of course, for an exhibition game in August, most major basketball programs would have trouble selling out in the United States, let alone abroad. Cragg said the attendance figures were not a surprise. The program’s partners in China advised Duke not to sell seats in the upper bowls because it was unlikely the stadiums would sell out.

“I think five years from now, if we were to go back again or if a big school were to go back over, I would hope it’s going to be bigger,” Cragg said. “I would hope that now, because of the exposure that we’ve gotten already, that it will be followed more, and we might be on the heels of really good timing if there is no NBA this year. Maybe their programming becomes college basketball, too. I don’t know [about] any of that, but it’s possible.”

When I sat down in Charles Clotfelter’s office in the Sanford School of Public Policy after returning to Durham, the first thing the professor of economics and law noted was the significance of the way in which universities now market their brands. “It kind of signifies a step in the direction of marketing and corporate identity. That’s what a big institution like Duke, I guess, inevitably must be. It’s a non-profit corporation. It has marketing, it has an image, it has a brand,” he said.

Clotfelter is the author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,”a book that analyzes the benefits that schools receive from prominent athletics programs and explains the economic incentives that support the system. The last time we spoke, in April and around the time the book was published, he expressed his belief that higher education scholars have traditionally not given athletics attention as a legitimate area of study to the extent that they should.

“It is not unreasonable to argue that the academic side of Duke University has benefited significantly from a prominent and rules-abiding athletic program,” he said during our most recent interview.

There are two “avenues of influence” in particular that allow universities to use their athletic program to their advantage, Clotfelter wrote in one of the chapters. Top sports teams lure influential and rich alumni and members of the community to the president’s box, where he can build potentially lucrative relationships for the school. Teams that bring home victories also attract TV crews and newspaper articles. “Thanks to media coverage, athletics can be a comparatively inexpensive way to build outside support, given the extremely high costs of the alternatives,” he wrote.

It is clear that this trip allowed Duke to use both aspects of its basketball team’s success to its advantage. That’s why it’s so difficult to estimate how much money this trip cost Duke Athletics. The program has declined to disclose figures for the cost of the trip, though Cragg said the $1.3 million estimate of the charter’s price was “in the right universe.” If a donor down the line decides to make a major gift in part because of relationships forged in China, the trip could pay for itself many times over.

To judge the true value of the trip, Clotfelter suggested revisiting the University’s mission statement, which stresses teaching, research and service. To do that, Duke has to understand how the China venture fits into this mission, which is a question the University still seems to be wrestling with. Once that is clarified, Duke can analyze the benefits of the trip more effectively.

“Here, [the trip has] got some really tangible payoffs for the academic side,” Clotfelter said. “Are the benefits greater than the costs? I don’t know. But it’s not just nothing. There’s some kind of payoff to whatever is happening over here.”

Discussion

Share and discuss “Beyond Basketball” on social media.