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12-12-2002, 11:26 PM

Yao Holding Court in China
Millions Are Tuning In To See Rockets' Center

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 13, 2002; Page A01

BEIJING, Dec. 12 -- On an average weeknight last month, a National Basketball Association game between two strong teams drew a television audience of about 1.1 million households in the United States. On Nov. 20, a Wednesday morning broadcast of a game between the Houston Rockets and one of the league's worst teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers, pulled in 5.5 million viewers in China; another 11.5 million tuned in for a repeat of the game at night.

The main attraction? The Rockets' new center, Yao Ming.

Millions of Chinese, young and old, basketball buffs and novices, are dodging work, skipping class and losing sleep to catch a glimpse of the towering, young Shanghai native who dunked his way out of this country's fledgling basketball league and onto the shimmering stage of the NBA as this year's No. 1 draft pick.

For Western corporations who see China as one of capitalism's last unconquered frontiers and the most tantalizing market on the planet, the Yao phenomenon is a case study in how the sheer scale of the world's most populous nation can offer mind-boggling opportunities and perhaps transform a business overnight if exploited successfully.

It's also the story of how a 7-foot-6, 22-year-old basketball player with a buzz cut and a shy smile has captured the imagination of a complex, fast-changing country consumed by a desire to prove it is a great nation, ready to compete with the world's best in any arena. Yao arrived in Houston this fall as a curiosity but in seven weeks he has emerged as a force on the court, averaging more than 11 points and seven rebounds per game despite limited playing time.

Newspapers have added extra pages for Yao news, analyzing his every rebound, charting his adjustment to American life, even debating whether Chinese authorities will take too much of his four-year, $17.8 million contract. Television stations are showing more NBA games, especially Rockets games, and ratings are skyrocketing. Web sites devoted to Yao have proliferated, and several publications have placed him on their short lists for man of the year honors.

"If Yao Ming's on TV, it doesn't matter what time it is," said Qian Zhaofei, 24, a graduate student in Beijing who runs an Internet site that posts running commentary on Yao games for those who can't get to a television. "If we hear about it, we'll sneak out of the lab and go back to the dorm to watch. We think he's great. We're proud of him."

What makes this hoopla all the more remarkable is that it could just be the beginning. In Houston, the Rockets have distributed Yao growth charts and plastered the city with billboards bearing his image, and ESPN has run commercials showing him dangling out of a tiny bunk bed and performing tai chi with the Rockets' wobbly mascot. But there's none of that yet in China, no Yao T-shirts or jerseys, no product endorsements or ad campaigns. Finding even a poster of him is a challenge.

This yawning gap between Yao's immense popularity and his minimal commercial presence won't last long. The NBA hopes Yao does for basketball in China what Michael Jordan did for the sport in the United States. Businesses around the world are salivating at the chance to use Yao to break into the enormous Chinese market, home to 1.3 billion people with rising average incomes and middle-class aspirations.

Just think: Yao's first game against the Indiana Pacers was available in 287 million Chinese households -- well more than double the number of all TV households in the United States.

"We're being flooded with offers for endorsements, from multinationals, software firms, computer manufacturers, shoe companies, apparel companies. You name it, they all want in," said Zhang Mingji, who heads Team Yao, the group of agents, consultants and others managing the player's business interests. "We don't really need to go out and seek opportunities. So we're taking our time, and being very cautious. Yao has to fit with the companies, and the product has to fit with Yao."

Earlier this year, Team Yao asked a group of business school students at the University of Chicago to study Yao's potential in China. Zhang said the results were more than encouraging: Consumers here have a more positive view of Yao than any other Chinese athlete, and while his fans are concentrated in the cities, they include older and middle-aged residents as well as the young.

"A successful marketing formula is talent plus charisma. I think Yao has as much charisma as anyone in the league. He's good-looking, charming, with a great sense of humor," said Bill Sanders, Yao's marketing director. "If he can match that with his performance on the court, he can become the next Tiger Woods. There are great, great opportunities, so why not shoot for the moon?"

Yao could begin signing endorsement contracts before the year's end, and the first products will be soft drinks, cell phones, computers and credit cards -- all produced by Western companies looking for a piece of the Chinese market, Sanders said. A deal with a major Internet firm in China for an official Yao Ming Web site is also in the works.

Nike already has a contract with Yao, signed years ago when he was just a teenager playing for the Shanghai Sharks. Though the deal expires at the end of the season, the company is planning a new print ad campaign in China built around Yao and has started selling a new Yao sneaker here for nearly $100 a pair -- a month's income for many Chinese.

The NBA is also positioned to prosper if Yao continues playing well. Even before his arrival, its surveys found that nearly three-quarters of all 15-to 24-year-old males in Chinese cities described themselves as NBA fans, and more than half said they watched at least one game each week.

Ren Jiangzhou, a sports producer at China Central Television, said Yao could help basketball overtake soccer as the country's most popular -- and profitable -- sport. For the first time, viewership of NBA games this season rivals and sometimes exceeds that of soccer matches, he said.

According to CSM, a Taylor Nelson Sofres Company, the nation's leading TV ratings firm, more than 6 million Chinese watched Yao's first game, a particularly impressive figure considering it was broadcast live at 8 a.m. on a Thursday. Another 6 million watched a taped repeat of the game the following night.

Overall NBA ratings have more than doubled in China. According to CSM, an average total of 15 million people watched the live morning broadcast and evening repeat of each NBA game on the national sports channel last month, compared with an average total of 6 million last year -- and an average audience of 11 million U.S. households during last season's NBA finals.

"If Yao becomes a star player, the potential is unlimited," said one Western television executive in China. "The impact could be huge for the NBA and for all of the broadcasters."

The NBA signed deals with a record 12 television stations in China this season, up from just one station last year, and it is in negotiations to sign a few more. China Central Television, the national broadcaster, shows two games each week, and the provincial stations show one or two additional games. Chinese sources said the stations each paid $70,000 to $230,000 for broadcast rights, depending on the size of their audience and other factors.

A decade ago, Chinese viewers were lucky to see just one NBA game per week, usually from a month-old tape the NBA mailed to Beijing. Now, the average Chinese viewer can watch four games weekly, and many can catch a fifth game on Hong Kong-based satellite channel Star Sports -- or nearly as many games as are now shown nationally each week in the United States.

Ren said more than 30 of the 84 Houston Rockets games will be broadcast in China, as well as several games with the San Antonio Spurs, the team that signed Chinese player Bateer Menk. But he said the Los Angeles Clippers have been banned from the air, because team member Wang Zhizhi -- who became the first Chinese player to join the NBA last season -- refused to return home for the Asian Games last summer.

"If it were up to us, we'd use even more Rockets games, because the Chinese people want to see Yao, and they think of the Rockets as their own team," Ren said. "But the NBA put a limit on what we could use."

Michael Denzel, managing director of NBA Asia, said the league wants to use the interest in Yao to build interest in all its teams. "We're not the Rockets channel," he said. "Even when the Chicago Bulls were at their peak, we didn't focus exclusively on one team. We're trying to create bounce."

The NBA hopes the Yao bounce will help it move into a market that thus far has been difficult to crack, primarily because distribution networks for sporting goods are weak and commercial piracy is rampant.

Denzel said China's first NBA-branded sneaker, sold by Reebok, went on sale this week, and the association has signed deals with a Chinese travel agency and two magazine publishers. He said the league will open an official website in Chinese soon, and NBA apparel -- including Yao Ming jerseys -- will hit China in the middle of next year, followed eventually by items such as posters and key chains.

Official NBA basketballs, produced by Spalding, are already available in China. Though they cost three times more than Chinese brands, Spalding sells enough of them to make China its largest market outside North American, Denzel said.

"We have a very exciting time for our business in China now, and it's all coming to a head as Yao is emerging as a likely superstar," he said. "We've got more and more sponsors wanting to talk to us about building their brands in China."

Ma Yu, a senior researcher at China's trade ministry, argued all this business means Yao is one of the nation's most important and valuable exports. He said if Yao plays well and the endorsement deals roll in, he could easily end up among China's ten wealthiest individuals, even after the $8 million to $15 million he may have to pay the Shanghai Sharks and Chinese basketball authorities over the next dozen years.

"He's not just a sports phenomenon, or a commercial phenomenon," Ma said. "He's a social phenomenon. He could change China's view of itself, and America's view of China."

But it all depends on how Yao plays. Qian Renmin, a poster vendor in Beijing, said he sells 50 NBA posters every week, but hardly any of Yao. The high school and college students who are his customers still prefer Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson.

"Almost nobody asks to buy Yao Ming posters," he said. "But I think with time, Yao will become more popular. I certainly hope he does, so I can sell more!"

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47796-2002Dec12.html (http://Chinese Fans go Wow for Yao...)

12-12-2002, 11:57 PM
Yao is going to be a prodigy in the NBA.

He has a lot of "potential". (Very good example about the potential's definition)

He is already in a good level playing the game.

And Barkley had to kiss an ass due to Yao. How many asses are going to be kissed because YAO?

12-13-2002, 12:10 AM
blah - double post

12-13-2002, 12:11 AM
nice article

12-13-2002, 09:50 AM
He's the real deal. Wish him all the best...except against the Mavs...but that's probably fruitless...(sorry evil and Mad)

12-13-2002, 12:21 PM
What a blown opportunity for Wang Zhi-Zhi!!! Had he kept his senses, he would still be playing for the mavs....

12-14-2002, 09:47 AM
What a blown opportunity for Wang Zhi-Zhi!!! Had he kept his senses, he would still be playing for the mavs....

<< But he said the Los Angeles Clippers have been banned from the air, because team member Wang Zhizhi -- who became the first Chinese player to join the NBA last season -- refused to return home for the Asian Games last summer. >>

Interesting question. I think it's unfortunate that Wang wasn't able to stay with the Mavs this year, because it looks like with all the injuries, there would've been an opportunity for him to play more significant minutes with the Mavs. But I don't think it was Wang who lost his senses. The Mavs could have retained him, and chose not to.

Given the quote from the article, it seems like Wang (and his advisors) knew what he'd be up against in dealing with the Chinese government. They knew that it was better in the long run to break out of the sharecropper-type contract he had with the Communist government of China and leave the Mavericks if necessary, in order to have a chance to succeed in the NBA.

The most disappointing aspect is that the Mavericks (and 27 other teams) have chosen not to risk pissing off the Chinese government by signing Wang. It's not even a total stretch to suggest that Wang's lack of playing time with the Clippers may have as much to do with the politics of the moment as his ability. The Clippers have Wang-the-asset, and they (with guidance from league powers) may be waiting an interval of time until the furor blows over and the Chinese government feels like retribution has been extracted.

I, for one, hope he gets an opportunity to play. I also hope that Cuban and the league reap the millions (or billions) that they envision from commercial and marketing deals within China, and that if Cuban or the NBA is ever faced with a similar dilemma, they will feel financially secure enough to make a more courageous choice.

12-15-2002, 10:17 AM
Another article, this one from the NYTimes site, regarding myriad NBA ventures in China. For a television audience of 280,000,000, households, tell me that Stern and the league wouldn't shackle Wang to a bench. Gets harder to convince oneself about the motives of NBA, Cuban, et al.

Yao's Success Speeds N.B.A.'s Plans for China

OUSTON, Dec. 12 — When the Houston Rockets won the N.B.A. draft lottery last June, and the right to select Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 center from China, with the first pick, Les Alexander, the Rockets' owner, said breathlessly in a phone call to the team president, &quot;This is going to be the biggest individual sports story of all time.&quot;

Hyperbole aside, Alexander understood the potential magnitude of Yao's presence in the National Basketball Association and in Houston. Now, six weeks into his rookie season, Yao leads the league in shooting at 59 percent, routinely achieves double figures in points and rebounds, and has impressed opponents with his skillful passing and defense. The Rockets are back in the playoff hunt, attendance is slowly rising and the 22-year-old Yao is the early favorite for the league's rookie of the year.

Just as he has changed the opinion of many who doubted him early, Yao has also altered the N.B.A.'s marketing approach in a fundamental way. Primarily because of him, teams realize they have to court ethnic groups in a more urgent and sophisticated manner, at a time when attendance is static or declining in professional sports. Meanwhile, Houston has become the centerpiece of the league's China strategy and its long effort to expand its business into the world's largest consumer market and fastest-growing economy.

&quot;It's the largest population base in the world by a fair amount; on top of that, we know there are a lot of basketball fans there,&quot; said Russ Granik, the N.B.A.'s deputy commissioner. &quot;On any long-term basis, you've got to consider China about as important a market as can be.&quot;

Yao's potential to influence fan interest and marketing growth is already being seized upon by the Rockets, other teams and the league itself.

¶The Rockets are hiring four Mandarin-speaking executives and have built billboards that are in Yao's native language. They are planning a weekly radio show in Mandarin along with a Web site diary and a weekly videotaped interview with Yao in both Chinese and English. The team also hands out ticket and statistical information in Mandarin at its games.

¶The Golden State Warriors, with an Asian population of 1.5 million in the Bay Area, have offered ticket plans of three and seven games linked to appearances by Yao. Public-address announcements were made in English and Mandarin for a Rockets game there on Nov. 27, and Yao delivered a videotaped message thanking fans for coming to see him.

¶Of the 120 N.B.A. games that will be broadcast in China this season, 30 will involve the Rockets. Some games have the potential to reach up to 280 million households, roughly equal to the entire population of the United States. This gives corporate sponsors a chance, through advertising placards being shown on television, to gain entry into a consumer market of 1.2 billion people.

¶For the first time, Chinese fans will be allowed to vote for the 2003 All-Star team, which could lead to electronic ballot box-stuffing for Yao, though he said he hoped to earn a berth on merit.

Not given to understatement on this subject, but recognizing the enormous new opportunities Yao presents, Alexander, the Rockets' owner, calls his team &quot;the best co-branding opportunity in the world.&quot;

An Open Lane to the East

Yao is the most prominent of three Chinese players in the N.B.A., and he represents for many ordinary Americans — at least American sports fans — the new openness in China as it enters the World Trade Organization and tries to balance a Communist political system with an increasingly market-driven economy.

&quot;It is a bit of a burden, but I realize it's a responsibility I have to shoulder,&quot; Yao said through a translator before collecting 17 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 3 assists and rescuing a 103-96 victory over Sacramento on Tuesday.

He has become hugely popular here for his pleasant nature, unselfishness, work habits and humility (&quot;You can't say I've succeeded; I've just started.&quot;) He smiles, patiently signs autographs and answers reporters' questions, speaking some English, putting a human face on China in a similar way that the gymnast Olga Korbut offset the stereotype of the stern Soviet visage with her joy and tears at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Of course, any transition to a new culture, with a new language, presents complex problems. Yao's mother lives with him, providing emotional support and his favorite meals of pork chops and chicken soup, but he admits to being homesick. The constant media attention can be wearing, the personal questions intrusive. He does not like to talk about the wristband that his girlfriend gave him or a special bike being made to fit his long legs. He diplomatically avoids answers to cultural questions that might affront anyone, though he is quick to criticize the notorious Houston traffic, which gives an entirely new meaning to clogging the lane.

Asked about his most difficult or unexpected adjustment to the United States, Yao said, &quot;Having to drive so much in traffic.&quot;

He does not yet have a driver's license and is chauffeured by his translator, Colin Pine. Yao does practice driving in his suburban neighborhood. During these times, Pine said: &quot;I sit in the car and fear for my life. Just kidding.&quot;

Away from basketball, Yao prefers video games and reading. With one-liners, he has been quick to make light of his cultural adjustment. Yao found the turkey breast somewhat dry during his first Thanksgiving, suggesting that the feet might have been a more prized delicacy, as with poultry back home. An avid Starbucks fan, he joked that he was disappointed on the team's first trip to the coffee capital of Seattle, having expected his favorite frappuccino to be available on the team bench.

&quot;In six short weeks, he went through the same process that many of us went through when we came to this country,&quot; said Michael Chang, who immigrated from China 17 years ago, owns a computer business here and has organized the Yao Ming Fan Club. &quot;A lot of us come here to work for corporate America, and we are doubted, yet we are the same caliber in our fields that he is in his. His experience resonates with us.&quot;

Houston has growing ties to China with its energy and medical businesses and its port. In 1960, only about 1,000 Asians lived in the Houston area, said Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American who is the city's mayor pro tem. That figure has grown to an estimated 300,000 in and near the nation's fourth-largest city, with the largest Asian groups being ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and immigrants from China. Houston has not one Chinatown but two. And while Asian-Americans have made significant economic and political gains, Quan said they still faced slights that perhaps Yao's presence might help to ameliorate.

&quot;During the spy plane incident, radio D.J.'s were saying don't go to Chinese restaurants,&quot; Quan said. &quot;It doesn't take much to stir underlying prejudices. I think people like Yao can build a bridge of better understanding. He will represent what China is to a lot of people — big, powerful, smart, talented. These are traits people like to be associated with.&quot;

A Signature Autograph

The Rockets have put on a full-court press to attract Asian fans locally, nationally and internationally. The team developed an advertising campaign with the slogan &quot;Be Part of Something Big,&quot; a reference to Yao's height and the team's expected revival.

Local fans, however, are still growing accustomed to receiving Yao's autograph in Chinese characters. When he signed dozens of life-size posters, the Rockets received two calls from people saying that someone seemed to have been doodling on their souvenir.

Other teams, particularly those on the West Coast with large Asian fan bases, are also attempting to capitalize on the growing interest in Yao. His presence in Seattle drew a block of Asian-American fans and helped the SuperSonics sell out a game the night after Thanksgiving.

The Golden State Warriors drew their largest attendance of the season for that Nov. 27 game against Houston. The team had fans fill out forms to win a Yao jersey in a raffle, and in doing so identified 6,000 new potential ticket-buyers.

&quot;It's becoming a significant evolution, especially in cities with large ethnic bases,&quot; Robert Rowell, chief operating officer of the Warriors, said of marketing to ethnic audiences. &quot;I don't think it's different for Eastern European players than Chinese players, but if you have a strong market, you're remiss if you don't tap into it.&quot;

Translating fan interest into ticket sales will be a gradual process in Houston, team executives acknowledge. The Rockets entered this week trailing every team but the Atlanta Hawks in attendance; the team was hurt by the arrival of the Houston Texans football team, fallout from the collapse of Enron and complacency that developed from years of sold-out houses in the 1990's.

Still, with Yao's presence, the future appears promising. Television ratings are up 30 percent, attendance is up 1,000 fans a game, and ticket plans involving a full season or partial season being sold to Asian-American fans are up threefold. For a game to be played on Feb. 2, at the time of the Lunar New Year, the Yao Ming Fan Club has reserved a block of 2,000 tickets. In November, the Rockets trailed only the champion Los Angeles Lakers in traffic at the 29 teams' individual Web sites.

Alexander predicts that Yao will be &quot;bigger than Michael Jordan in the world; not in the U.S. but in the world.&quot; He added, &quot;There are so many Asians, he'll be the biggest athlete of all time.&quot;

No one else will make such assertions, but the basketball and marketing possibilities seem vast. Houston has signed a sponsorship agreement worth a minimum of $1 million a year for six years that will make a Chinese beer, Yanjing, the only imported brew served at Rockets games. Exclusive arena advertising for the beer is provided courtside. Sales in Houston have jumped tenfold in a few months, said Rich DeCicco, president of Harbrew, a Long Island-based importer of the beer.

&quot;Since our affiliation with the Rockets, they literally cannot keep beer on the shelf,&quot; DeCicco said. &quot;And we've got an interesting bounce back in China. People are seeing the beer they drink every day on television in the United States. They wonder what's next, air-conditioners, refrigerators?&quot;

Yao's signing by the Rockets has not gone unnoticed by the upper reaches of China's political leadership. On a visit here in October, Jiang Zemin, China's president, said he hoped the Rockets would win the N.B.A. championship. He also met with Yao while delivering an address on bilateral cooperation at Texas A&amp;M. Alexander said he thought that Jiang himself signed off on allowing Yao to play in the United States.

This is hardly a mere cultural exchange. Chinese basketball officials hope that Yao will be groomed to help China win a medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They are also seeking marketing advice and cash. The Rockets paid $350,000 to Yao's Chinese club team, the Shanghai Sharks, for his rights. According to reports, he will pay half or more of his $15.6 million, four-year contract to Chinese governmental and sports bodies. Chinese citizens are also closely following Yao for symbolic reasons not directly related to basketball, said Steven Lewis, an Asia expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

&quot;They are wondering: `Where do we stand in the world? Are we going to be a great power?' &quot; Lewis said. &quot;Yao is a Chinese person going abroad to live and work among foreigners. The Chinese middle class — 500 million people — they look at how they are opening up to the world and they know that they, too, will have to go into the world and face the hardships of competition.&quot;

Praise Starts to Flow

In the N.B.A. itself, early skepticism has given way to praise and expectation. After Yao delivered 16 points and 13 rebounds against his Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday, Coach Larry Brown said: &quot;It's hysterical. A kid from China knows how to play and we've got kids in America who have no clue that are playing in our league.&quot;

Frank Williams, the coach of the Phoenix Suns, said of Yao: &quot;It is scary. I keep thinking, Shaq might be done in a few years and now we're going to have to deal with him.&quot;

If the league's teams do not relish dealing with Yao, the league's front office is fairly panting at the opportunity. The N.B.A. has been conducting friendship tours with China since the mid-1980's and has broadcast its championship series live there since 1994; coincidentally, that is when Houston began back-to-back championship seasons and Yao began to follow Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon. This season, N.B.A. games and programming in China will be carried on 12 networks.

The league has just opened an office in Beijing, is planning exhibition games in China in the near future and will soon begin a Chinese version of its Web site, NBA.com. Traffic from China accounts for the second greatest number of international visitors to the league's Web site.

&quot;What they are starved for is Yao Ming content, and we're producing it,&quot; said George Postolos, president of the Rockets. &quot;We're going to find a way to get it to them for promotional purposes, because we know we benefit from people saying this is the most watched team in the world, this is the most popular team in the world, this is China's team.&quot;