Start of Yao dynasty?
NBA hopes he can open China market
By Mark Montieth
October 30, 2002
When Yao Ming takes the floor for the Houston Rockets tonight against the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse, it will mark more than the start of another NBA season.
It will usher in a brave new world -- both for the NBA and for the world's most populous country, China.
"I think it will be memorable," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "It will be the kind of event you look back on in five years and say, 'I saw this guy play in his first game.' "
Most scouts believe the 7-5 Yao has the athleticism, maturity and charisma to achieve superstar status once he gains experience. But that's only the beginning of his potential impact. It's the number of people who will be able to claim they watched his first NBA game five years from now that makes him such a landmark player -- one who could have greater marketing influence than Michael Jordan did.
Yao isn't the first native of China to play in the NBA. He was preceded by Wang Zhizhi, now with the Clippers, and Mengke Bateer, who plays for San Antonio. But Yao is regarded as the best prospect, and has a Jordan-like appeal to fans in China.
He's the primary reason an estimated 287 million households in China will receive the broadcast of tonight's game. That figure takes awhile to digest, given that the population of the United States is 281 million according to the 2000 census, and 107 million households own televisions. But in China, with a population of 1.3 billion, it's merely a fraction, with room to grow.
You can almost hear the advertising jingle: Be Like Yao.
For a league facing dwindling television ratings and struggling to sell tickets and merchandise in a soft economy, China offers the NBA perfectly timed potential for a large market.
It's already happening, in fact, and not by accident. The NBA has been making inroads into China for more than 20 years, and had the good fortune of enjoying its boom period about the same time China began embracing Western culture.
In 1979, the Washington Bullets became the first league team to play exhibitions there, against the Chinese national team. In 1987, the NBA broadcast the All-Star game there. In 1989, commissioner David Stern visited and reached an agreement to broadcast regular-season games. In 1994, every NBA Finals game was broadcast there live for the first time.
The NBA has been sending coaches and players, past and present, to China for games and clinics since 1984. Toronto's Vince Carter, for example, went to Beijing in July this year.
The league opened a quasi-headquarters in Hong Kong in 1992, with one person working out of his home. It now has an office with 20 staffers, and is opening another in Beijing. The NBA began publishing its magazine, Hoop, in Mandarin in 1999, and is in the process of presenting its Web site in Chinese. It also plans to open merchandising stores and restaurants in the country.
The economic impact from increased TV ratings, merchandise sales and sponsor agreements is almost incalculable. Here's one small example, though: Houston sold a $1 million sponsorship deal this season to the company that makes Yanjing beer. The brand name will be on a large sign in the arena that will be clearly seen on the broadcasts in China.
Since the luxury tax threshold for team payrolls, which most franchises attempt to stay below, is determined by overall revenues, it's safe to say China's economic contribution will enable higher salaries for players, or at least keep them from slipping.
"This is awesome for the NBA," said Detroit scout Tony Ronzone.
Ronzone has first-hand knowledge of China's booming basketball market, making several trips in the past seven years, including one that lasted six months while working for Dallas.
He and other NBA scouts who have been there describe a nation obsessed with the game. Estimates of the number of people playing basketball in China range from 200 to 300 million. It is second in popularity to soccer, but is the fastest-growing sport and the only one played in every school.
YMCA missionaries introduced basketball to China in 1898, seven years after James Naismith invented it. But it took Michael Jordan to popularize it, once games were regularly broadcast there in the '90s. Jordan, in fact, is said to have been voted more popular than Chairman Mao in one mainland China poll. With so many people enthralled by the game, it's logical talent will gush forth. While Americans tend to think of Chinese as small in stature, segments of the population in the northern part of China are tall.
Ronzone recalls giving a clinic in Inner Mongolia, where the 6-11 Bateer is from, that included more than 20 7-footers between the ages of 14 and 18.
"The only thing they're lacking now is coaching and infrastructure," Ronzone said.
That will come. There's no shortage of American companies anxious to build better facilities and sell equipment in China. And more and more coaches are going there to teach the game.
Former LSU coach Dale Brown has made several trips, and helped coach the women's national team on one visit.
"They may have reached a saturation point unless they can bring in more American advisers," Brown said. "But what we did here in gymnastics and soccer by bringing in coaches from Romania and Brazil, they can do in basketball."
Houston Rockets scout Joe Ash believes there's a gap in China's talent pool at the moment, with no NBA-caliber talent on the immediate horizon. But that should change in a few years, and change for good as the current boom bears fruit.
Ash recently told Yao that he would be returning to China after the upcoming NBA season. When Yao asked why, Ash said, "To find more Yao Mings."
They are coming.
He's the primary reason an estimated 287 million households in China will receive the broadcast of tonight's game. That figure takes awhile to digest, given that the population of the United States is 281 million according to the 2000 census, and 107 million households own televisions. But in China, with a population of 1.3 billion, it's merely a fraction, with room to grow