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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

Yao Ming’s impact on the NBA in China | Danny Xing

Updated: May 30, 2019

The NBA is globally known as one of the most popular games. According to statistics, there are more than 300 million people watching and playing basketball in China. It is amazing for a country who has officially opened its gates to western society for only about 20 years. And it has only been a few years since the first Chinese player played in the NBA. So how did this happen? What has the NBA done to become one of the biggest sports partners with China? Well, in order to fully explain the story will probably take a few hours so, in this blog, I will focus on one of the biggest factors and probably the most influential: drafting Yao Ming.

Football has always been a major sport in China, of course, after Ping Pong. Generation Y grew up under the huge impact of football in the 90s, names like Beckenbauer and Maradona mean everything to Chinese sports lovers. Things started to change in 2002 when former Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis picked Yao Ming first in the 2002 draft. By then, Yao was already a household name in Shanghai after leading the Shanghai Sparks to a famous victory over the great Bayi Rockets team of the late 90s, in doing so winning the China Basketball Association title for the first time and in historic fashion.

Yao’s drafting vastly increased the media exposure of NBA in China. It instantly became a highlight for sports lovers every weekend when games were broadcasted on CCTV5. Within months, school children started to play basketball instead of football. Before, basketball had always played second fiddle. Not only did Yao’s Asian background attract attention from millions of Chinese and Asian Americans, his dominance and success on the court were also big factors in how he became so popular within such a short period. During games, people enjoyed watching Yao’s clashes with Shaquille O’Neal, who was at the peak of his career. Off the court, people were attracted to Yao’s humour and personality. The NBA immediately recognised the huge commercial opportunity behind this 7’6” giant and through Yao’s popularity, the NBA gradually built the Chinese market through a variety of campaigns including Yao’s Charity game, NBA China Game and NBA Care Events. 

The League also did a lot to promote the young Yao in order to raise the awareness of Chinese basketball lovers. During a famous show called NBA court, NBA legend Charles Barkley bet Yao would not score more than 19 points in a single game during his entire career. When Yao was asked his feelings about the comment, Yao smiled and agreed to score only 18 points every game. That night against Lakers, Yao scored 19 points. People notice NBA is not a serious league such as most of the leagues in China. Sports can be fun, interesting and commercial.

Although Yao never won an NBA championship, he is still considered as a success. Following Yao’s great rookie season, he became the first Chinese player to make the NBA All-Star game, attracting millions of Chinese fans watching live. That night Michael Jordan played his final All-Star game but Yao became the face of Chinese basketball.

Yao’s jersey sold incredibly well, within months hundreds of NBA merchandise stores opened in China. Gradually, other players such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson became household names pushing China to become the NBA’s biggest market outside of North America. After more than 25 years of cooperation with CCTV5 over media coverage, the NBA has introduced its League Pass with Tencent this year for the first time showing the legendary partnership between NBA and Chinese community is still flourishing.

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