Friday, December 13, 2002

PEERING OVER THE GREAT WALL AND SEEING ALL THESE DOLLAR SIGNS RUNNING AROUND: Great Washington Post article on the potential economic impact of Yao Ming. Sample:

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 -- a series of exercises and postures developed in China -- 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.

I bet David Stern is looking is looking at that 287 million households number and putting some dollar signs in front and maybe a zero or two in back. I mean, what a market, ready and willing to be turned into basketball fanatics--and the NBA brand in particular. Stern probably has a whole NBA Far East jotted down on the back of a napkin somewhere. And additionally, will China turn into a nation of basketball players as well? Will pro ball be something a Chinese athlete will aspire to, as another way to get out of poverty in the coming People's Capitalist Republic? We shall see.

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