The East Asian Super League, a group looking to build the top competition for basketball clubs in Asia, has raised money from investors that include the Raine Group and a trio of former NBA stars—Baron Davis, Metta Sandiford-Artest and Shane Battier.
Valued at $100 million, EASL is trying to create an East Asian version of soccer’s uber-successful Champions League, building off the popularity of basketball across the continent and the rapid expansion of digital media options.
EASL on Wednesday announced multi-year deals with the pro leagues in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan, plus a new pro team in Hong Kong, as it continues its formal transition from managing invitational tournaments to becoming a fully integrated league. It also has a new 10-year deal with FIBA, global basketball’s governing body, that grants it official recognition and the ability to hold home-and-away series in the middle of the domestic league seasons.
“We have ultimate respect for the NBA, but it’s not an Asian cultural product,” said Matt Beyer, co-founder and CEO of EASL. “So we can look for our own way in the sport of basketball. It doesn’t all have to be hiding at one’s work desk or with your mobile under the school table in the morning, trying to watch games [in America]. We can be seeing premium basketball delivered in primetime that’s very exciting, and that really captures the national fervor of having a fan from China watch a Chinese team play against a team from Japan.”
EASL has raised $13.06 million to date, with the $100 million valuation coming via a round of convertible notes on the heels of its Series B. In addition to the Raine Group, a boutique investment bank with a number of strategic investments in sports, EASL investors include NBA agent Bill Duffy and a series of family offices and high net worth individuals in Asia. The group is planning to raise another $30-$50 million in an upcoming Series C.
EASL makes money through sponsorship, media and tickets, with a Final Four weekend that will rotate around cities in Asia. Sponsorship represents the biggest revenue bucket right now, with plans for media rights to eventually take that mantle. EASL is currently shopping rights for this new format.
Beyer, who broke into basketball in 2007 as a translator for Milwaukee Bucks center Yi Jianlian, launched EASL five years ago alongside co-founder Henry Kerins. The pair, well-versed in sports, media and entertainment across Asia, saw two trends happening simultaneously in the region. One, basketball was growing in popularity around the continent—in the Philippines, for example, more than half the population watches a live basketball broadcast every week—and yet there was no major club competition outside of individual national leagues. Second, digital media was taking off in places like China and Korea.
EASL’s first iteration was standalone tournaments prior to the start of domestic schedules, a way to show proof of concept and attract investors. The first event, held in 2017 in Macau, had 16 games and drew 21 million viewers, according to EASL. In 2019, the 16-game event drew 117 million viewers.
The first season of this new home-and-home competition will feature the champions and runners-up from the top pro leagues in Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Greater China will be represented by the champions of the Taiwan league and a new traveling pro franchise based in Hong Kong. (The group plans to double to 16 teams and add clubs from additional countries in the next few years).
The EASL champion in this first season will earn $1 million, with $500,000 going to second place and $250,000 to third. Organizers say the ambition is to be one of the world’s Top 3 basketball leagues in commercial revenue and fan base by 2025.
“In audience size, we cover 1.7 billion people in all of our geographies, and any time you add another geography into the equation in Asia, you’re adding at least 100 million more people,” Beyer said. “So in terms of the people watching our product, we anticipate 230 million viewers for season one, and we feel that’s very realistic.”