Lizhang Jiang went from sports journalist to upstart sports marketer to founder and president of Desports, one of China’s most powerful sports marketing firms, in 12 years.
Last month, Lizhang purchased a 5% stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves, becoming the first Chinese citizen to own part of an NBA team. He met with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, NBA Commissioners and other league owners and executives in Las Vegas this week.
In an interview, the 35-year-old Lizhang told USA TODAY Sports through an interpreter that being a part-owner of an NBA team is a “dream come true.”
“I am a passionate basketball fan, and after many years, I have grown from a fan into a shareholder,” he said. “It is really exciting.”
Why the Timberwolves?
“The first reason why I choose the Timberwolves is because the Timberwolves have been quite popular in China already thanks to when the team was led by Kevin Garnett,” Lizhang said. “The team has already gathered a huge number of fans in China. The team has demonstrated the spirit of a wolf, which is everything about teamwork, persistence and acumen. These qualities are in line with the Chinese culture.”
Lizhang, who also recently purchased a 98% stake in Spanish soccer club Granada, was introduced to Taylor through mutual connections.
“The other reason I wanted to choose the Minnesota Timberwolves is also because of Mr. Glen Taylor, who is such a charming person,” Lizhang said. “He has strong charisma and business acumen. These are very attractive qualities. He is also the chairman of the NBA (board of governors). There is a lot for me to learn from him.”
The NBA has strong traction in China, and Lizhang believes his involvement can help increase the Timberwolves’ popularity and business growth in Asia.
“I’ve been working in sports marketing for the last decade so I know very well about the Chinese market and the global market,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of experience and resources in that regard. The NBA has done great in going global. The NBA China has achieved great success already.
“In order to become more international in the future, we need to be bolder and more creative. I would like to apply my expertise and knowledge of the Chinese and global markets to help the Timberwolves and the NBA become more successful and popular in China.”
Lizhang said he was working as a sports journalist in 2004 when soccer star Luis Figo of Portugal wanted an endorsement deal. Lizhang helped facilitate a deal between Figo and Seven Brand, a clothing company in China.
Lizhang then formed Double-Edged Sports, which is now called Desports, a multi-faceted sports marketing firm involved in sponsorships and endorsements, event marketing and operations, public relations, technology and media .
Based in Shanghai, Desports brokered a sponsorship deal between 361 Degrees, a Chinese sports apparel company, and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Lizhang, who grew up in fishing village in Fujian Province on China’s southeast coast, became a fan of the NBA during the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs in the mid-1990s. For now, he is not thinking about one day becoming a majority owner of an NBA team.
“Right now, my priority is to focus on the job we are doing now, and I look would to focus on how to help the team grow with my expertise and knowledge,” he said. “Only when we have done good work can we think about the future. Once you have done well with what you’re doing now, the rest will come along naturally.”