The (Inter?)National Basketball Association
At the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis, the United States basketball team had its worst finish ever, losing three games — to Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Spain — to finish 6th. This comes on the heels of America's soccer team advancing to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup and its consequent 9th place international ranking, ahead of perennial powerhouse Italy.
Basketball is beginning to resemble the international soccer stage, where nation versus nation competition draws the top talent, and just as for league soccer play, where Europe gets the strongest players, the NBA is the same. Every year sees more international players entering the NBA but returning back to their respective national teams when it is time, taking back with them valuable talent, knowledge of the game and their opponents, and experience. Eighteen of the US national soccer team's best players come from the European ranks. Just as the college game is a farm for professional players, the international leagues have become the same. Most NBA clubs are setting their sights abroad, not just to fill roster spots, but looking for the next All Star or franchise player, and they are willing to spend those precious lottery picks on international talent, too. This draw is also detrimental to the European game, though. Just as the America's major soccer league, MLS, sees its best players depart for Europe, like Kasey Keller and Joe-Max Moore (thankfully Landon Donovan has been retained for two more years), the talent drain leaves other leagues starving for those game changing players.
These imported players are not without impact, either. Retired Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Tim Duncan, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, is the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player. The 2001-02 Rookie of the Year was Spain's Pau Gasol. Congolese Dikembe Mutombo, Canadian Steve Nash, German Dirk Nowitzki, and Yugoslavian Peja Stojakovich were all selected as 2002 All-Stars. They have also shown that they will draw their hometown crowds, pulling fans from great distances to watch them play. Fans from Chihuahua, Mexico bussed 17 hours to support local-born Dallas Maverick Eduardo Najera.
The NBA has even stretched to the most unlikely of all places, the Middle East. The Lakers now have game commentators that speak Farsi and broadcast back to the homes and shops of Iran. It is only a matter of time until a Persian or Arab Rookie of the Year, and the impact that could have on cultural views are incalculable, in the same way Jackie Robinson changed an increasingly integrated America.
The Internet shows the same story of global expansion. Over 40% of NBA.com's traffic now comes from outside the United States, and the league is even launching a Chinese version of their web site due to the high demand. NBA All-Star ballots can be cast in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Just looking at merchandising numbers, you would have no idea that America's economy was stumbling along. Worldwide sales in 2002 were up 35% to $1.8 billion, and a similar increase is expected this year, almost entirely attributed to international sales and players.
By the same mechanism that the US climbs the international soccer ladder, it slides down the international basketball ladder. A 6th place American basketball team and a 9th ranked American soccer team are inextricably linked. The only question now is how long before a player from across the ocean or from a different continent will wrap the NBA around his finger and be ruler... enter Yao Ming and his dynasty.
Yao, 22, bolted from China's Shanghai Sharks last year to join the NBA. Being picked first by the Houston Rockets marked the premiere time that an international player took top honors in the NBA draft. In the post-Jordan era of the NBA, Yao is the poster child of what the NBA is to become: a global sport filled with ever younger players.
"I think Yao Ming is like the new Bruce Lee," Tang Yinjie, a graduate student from Shanghai, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "He introduced some new ideas to the American people." The culture he brings out of people and places is unheard of. At many NBA arenas that Yao plays at, the host team is trying to make him feel at home and draw more Asian fans by proffering familiar Chinese food and culture. Some have special food at concession stands and others schedule martial arts and dance exhibitions before the game and at half-time. In Houston, you can enjoy a foot long egg roll while drinking a Chinese beer during the game.
Yao already has a huge fan base, too. The NBA has not wasted any time in trying to capitalize, either. Two fans of Yao traveled from Beijing to Orlando for Disney and explicitly for Yao's game against the Magic. When they saw dragons dancing on the court the wife asked, "That's not normal, is it?" The NBA is working on deals with six television networks across China to broadcast games: 30 of Yao's NBA games, and more than 150 games total, will be transmitted across China this year. In his television debut he reached 287 million households, but with the new deals this number is expected to reach 400 million (almost four times as many television households as in the States). On December 5, Yao gave a 1 1/2 hour online chat on the Chinese Internet portal Sohu.com where almost nine million people logged on. It produced so much traffic that it brought packets to a halt in six of China's largest cities.
"People in mainland China are very anxious for Yao to succeed," Frenzen said. "A lot of them are afraid he might fail. It wasn't until he found his legs in the NBA that you really found an expressed ground swell for Yao Ming in China. Can you think of many equivalents, where a Chinese athlete has gone to America and played an American game against the most visible athletes in the world? And think about what's happened in China [politically] over the last 20 years."
Be Part of Something Big
The Rockets' marketing slogan this year is "Be Part of Something Big," but nobody knew Yao would be this big, this quickly. However, there was advanced preparation for when this might happen.
Yao's first contact with Nike came at a party thrown for the local Shanghai Sharks. As the players came in, nobody looked very impressive, except a teenage 7-foot-3 Yao Ming. Terry Rhodes of Nike quickly took notice. The only bad part was that Yao was wearing Adidas shoes. After a few calls back to Nike headquarters, Yao was wearing size-18s made expressly for Alonzo Mourning.
When Yao was still playing in Shanghai, he called his cousin Erik Zhang, a student at the University of Chicago's graduate school of business, asking where he could find shoes. This set Zhang's mind in motion, and he involved the deputy dean of the business school, John Huizinga, now one of Yao's agents. Jonathan Frenzen, a clinical professor of marketing, organized a 10-student class that became an integral part of Yao's group advisers, called Team Yao. The student team produced a 175-page report that included an Excel spreadsheet to help evaluate which of Yao's endorsement possibilities would fit his personality, forward his image, and keep his credibility.
The Excel branding calculator that Team Yao created has three parts: information on the product category, on the company, and what Yao himself thinks of it. It will determine how societies view the product, company, and how it reflects on Yao and his personal brand. Adding that to the subjective comments of what Yao and his marketers think, if the score is high enough, then it could be a good product for Yao to endorse. "The calculator really surprised us," Zhang said. "It gives us a precise framework to do evaluations and they've provided us with the tools to adjust to future changes." BDA Sports Management advisor Bill Sanders adds, "The calculator will never be more important than the judgment of the people we have assembled, but it allows us to look at every deal in that business school type of analysis, which is very important."
The report concludes that subsequent advertising should then reflect one of Yao's key personality traits: dard-working, self-confident, respectful, talented, heroic or charismatic/light-hearted. A cell phone game seemed to be a good first match. Sorrent's Yao Ming Basketball was the first endorsement deal signed after arriving in America. Yao says that he is an avid gamer but plays mostly adventure, not sports, games and that he bought three cell phones in the last year. The Sorrent deal is typical of what other deals may follow.
Even though Yao has been working on his English, he still needs a translator. "His endorsement possibilities are limited by his English skills," Williams said. "And while the Apple ad works [with Yao not speaking], how many times can you do that?" In the Visa ad he is limited to saying his own name and "Can I write a check for this?" while holding a cast Statue of Liberty. Yao's biggest potential upside may lie with where he came from. Frenzen and a colleague went to China for two weeks to conduct 14 focus groups, recording everything diligently, to see what Yao's product would look like over there. The report says that Yao's target market should be "the 460 million kids, parents and yuppies" that are China's already Yao-friendly urban population. Frenzen said that a handful of companies looking to market themselves in China have asked about enlisting Yao's help. Sorrent's game will be available for wireless device download in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. There are 200 million cell phone users in China, compared to 120 million in the US. With numbers like these, it is no shock that American businesses want Yao's help to climb into China's brobdingnagian market.
Yao is taking top billing, too. His latest advertisement was a Visa commercial that premiered during the Super Bowl. He is also being featured in the "Got Milk?" campaign, but Yao has already made it clear that he does not want to be a novelty and has turned down other offers, including one advertisement that would have him wearing a cowboy hat. The Visa spot allowed Yao to be Yao, while the Sorrent endorsement is something that Yao likes to do. He is also known to stock his refridgerator with Starbucks Frappuccinos, and there are rumors of Yao meeting with Starbucks chairman and Seattle Sonics owner Howard Shultz, but Shultz denies a meeting has ever happened.
"For [the] Chinese, he is a symbol of modernization and professionalization in the sporting industry, but he also has this incredible political symbolism ... the ability of Chinese to go out and compete in the world," claims Steven Lewis, a Rice University Asia expert, who also advises the Rockets.
Adding to his Sorrent, milk, Apple, and Visa spots is a shoe and apparel Nike deal that was penned before he even came to America. The actual numbers of these are undisclosed, but Bob Williams, the president of Burns Sports Management, estimates the Nike deal in the "low seven figures" a year. With Yao's four-year $17.8 million Rockets contract, Williams estimates Yao should be pulling in about $6 million a year (compared to the $40 million of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods).
Coming to America
However, Yao's deal to come play in the NBA is complex, and originally he was to only receive about half of his earnings. In April of 1992, the Chinese government reinstated a rule that they used to apply to table tennis players who left to play outside of China: half of the athlete's earnings were to go to the player and his team and the other half was to go to the government to dole out to various government sports entities. In the final deal, the payment back to the Chinese government and his old team was not as severe as first laid out. Now, the pay scale depends on how long Yao stays in the NBA: if Yao returns to China within three years, the Sharks get nothing; if he plays up to 12 years, they will get $8 million; and if Yao stays longer, they will get up to $15 million. This is far from the original $40 million that they wanted. Also, 5% of Yao's earnings will go to the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). China also received guarantees that Yao will attend important off-season practices, international games, and the Olympics. In return, the government will not nag the Rockets about further commitments. This was a determinative accession, as Wang Zhizhi, the first CBA player to skip off to the NBA two years ago, has since refused to return to China to play for the national team.
On top of that, the New York Times reported that the Rockets paid the Sharks $350,000 for Yao's rights. Li Yaomin, the Sharks vice general manager defends, "We cultivated him, taught him to be a star. Yao Ming is China's [Michael] Jordan. We don't want to lose him." In Mr Zhang's more Americanized view "Chinese colleges are heavily subsidized, but do they demand a payback if you become successful — a Nobel Prize winner, a rich businessman?" Also, Yao wasn't just important to US and Chinese basketball. His story was even used by China's US ambassador, Yang Jiechi, as an example of "constructive engagement" between the nations. The Chinese are trying to use Yao to develop better relations, preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
At least the Chinese government has not limited the amount or type of endorsements Yao could do, and the Sharks only get a set fee from his earnings and do not get any percentage of each endorsement he chooses to do. After paying everybody
off back for his training, he still gets $3 million. Well, maybe not. Before all that, the American government takes their cut, too.
Can I Write a Check for This?
Everybody around Yao knows that his off-court success is largely dependant on his on-court success. Yao also knows this. "I feel a lot of pressure on me," Yao said through his interpreter. "But I feel it every day. I am used to it. It is a bit of a burden on me, but I have to realize it's a responsibility I have to shoulder."
Yao wouldn't be the first big man to come up short. He didn't score in his NBA debut, and many hoops pundits and fans were quick to heap on the doubt. In the first few games of the season, many said he looked lost on the court. The comparisons to other paper giants like Sean Bradley, George Muresean, and hockey sensation Manute Bol rolled in. Yao may share his height with them, but he plays like a man a foot shorter. While these other trees were saplings with twigs for legs, Yao is said to have some of the largest thighs in the league, which was evident when he blocked Shaquille O'Neil's first three shots in their first meeting. "There aren't too many guys who made me feel short," said 7-foot-1 David Robinson after getting a taste of Yao. "He made me feel short and small." Yao's success can be attributed to his great knowledge of the game and his studying the moves of Olajuwon and Arvydas Sabonis.
Ex-NBA superstar and now commentator Charles Barkley was so sure that Yao wouldn't break out in the league that on national television he bet co-commentator Kenny Smith that he would kiss his ass if Yao ever scored 20 points in a game. It is almost as if Yao hears his detractors. In his 8th NBA game, he shot 8 for 8 from the floor, scoring 20 points against the Shaq-less Los Angeles Lakers. On the next show, Kenny Smith brought a mule on stage and Barkley hesitantly kissed the animals backside. It might not have been that humiliating, except for the clip finding time on virtually every sports show across the nation.
Then the battle of the two tallest men in the NBA came along when the Rockets met Dallas, and Yao had a chance to prove himself against 7-foot-6 Sean Bradley. Yao dropped 30 points on Bradley with 16 rebounds showing that there is no comparison. His detractors still (rightfully) claimed that he has not faced any good centers. Then Yao traveled to San Antonio to take on the Spurs big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson, he laid out 27 points and picked up 18 rebounds on the duo. At that point is was hard to argue against Stuart Scott's nightly SportsCenter clamoring, "Yao Ming has arrived! Yao Ming has arrived!"
Yao isn't just content with that either. Despite limited English skills Yao has been a fast learner. To get his first technical in the NBA, Yao blocked a shot by Theo Ratliff and was called for taunting. Ratliff quipped, "They're teaching him too much down there." Also, it being an insult to dunk on somebody in China, he had to be coaxed into finishing strong. During the Lakers matchup with Shaq, Frenzen said that when Yao dunked on the other big man, the crowd in the bar in China he was at jumped up in cheers, including 80-year old men, but those in China already knew this would happen. They were just waiting for a confirmation sign, and what signs he has been delivering for all to see. Yao was even the first Chinese player to have his number retired; the Shanghai Sharks lofted his #15 jersey in the rafters when he left.
Making a strong case for Rookie of the Year, Yao is leading All Star voting for centers, well above Shaq. Many attribute this to the online voting where the billion person China is seen as an unbeatable force. However, Yao is also leading the paper balloting that is available only in the United States. Jerry Brewer of the Orlando Sentinel says that "Once he figures out his teammates — and vice versa — domination will occur."
And once Yao dominates, American corporate and NBA influence in the billion person market are sure to follow.