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Sky Rocket With his forceful play and a smile that transcends language, Houston's 7'5" YAO MING has given the league a needed boost on two continents

Feb. 10, 2003
Feb. 10, 2003

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Feb. 10, 2003

Sky Rocket With his forceful play and a smile that transcends language, Houston's 7'5" YAO MING has given the league a needed boost on two continents

As the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming looks around (actually, down) at
his fellow All-Stars this weekend in Atlanta, he will see players
with championship rings (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille
O'Neal, Tim Duncan); players averaging double figures in both
points and rebounds (Duncan, Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki,
Jermaine O'Neal); players with hip sneaker commercials (Tracy
McGrady); players with mad hops (Vince Carter), mop tops (Steve
Nash), bad-ass Afros (Ben Wallace) and tattoos (Allen Iverson).
Yao--he of the ringless fingers, modest stats (12.9 points and
8.2 rebounds per game through Sunday), limited vertical
leap, stock Nikes, buzz cut and unadorned epidermis--would seem
out of place. Yet in the high-stakes game of commercial chess
that sometimes seems to matter most these days, the 7'5" rookie
is the new king, the literal and figurative center of attention
who bestrides two continents and makes hearts pound and cash
registers ring in both.

This is an article from the Feb. 10, 2003 issue Original Layout

In terms of global appeal, "Yao will break all the rules," says
Michael Denzel, managing director of the NBA's suddenly
burgeoning Asia operation. Rich Thomaselli, who writes about
sports business and marketing for Advertising Age, has a more
disinterested though equally rosy view: "I don't see anything
that can keep Yao from being a major, major force in the
marketplace."

Yes, in the eternal search for the It Guy, Yao is now, and as far
as the NBA is concerned, he arrived none too soon. According to
an SI poll (page 38), NBA fans' interest in the league is down,
and though media hype might tell you otherwise, it is not high
school hotshots such as LeBron James who are most likely to lead
a revival. It is players like Yao. Witness the fans' strongly
positive poll response to the influx of international players and
the fact that the public installed Yao as a starter on the
Western Conference All-Star team, ahead of no less imposing a
figure than Shaq.

This good feeling about foreigners would not have been likely
several years ago, but it has become impossible to ignore the
appeal of players such as Dallas Mavericks forward Nowitzki
(Germany), Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojakovic (Yugoslavia)
and Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol (Spain). The
internationals come into the NBA fundamentally sound and ready to
play, dragging very little baggage from their homeland. That has
certainly been true of Yao, whose adjustment period was expected
to be long but who turned into a solid contributor almost
immediately. In only his 10th game, against Dallas, he erupted
for 30 points and 16 rebounds. The Rockets may have lost 103--90,
but the buzz about the kid from China with the sweet touch had
begun.

It continued as Yao demonstrated that he could sustain his game,
even embarrassing Shaq in the first quarter of their first
meeting, on Jan. 17, with three quick baskets and three
rejections of O'Neal shots. He also showed other endearing
qualities: a flair for passing, a sense of humor, a winning
smile--just the right image for companies seeking a novel but
unthreatening pitchman. "Yao comes along at the perfect time to
the perfect league," says Thomaselli. "The NBA has wanted
exponential global growth. The other foreign players have helped,
but Yao, who is truly unique because of his size, background and
personality, will lead the way."

He has already made a difference in Houston, where attendance at
the Compaq Center is up some 2,000 a game, and elsewhere around
the league, where the Rockets, who haven't been much of an
attraction since their championship teams of 1993--94 and
'94--95, are the seventh-leading draw (up from 18th last season).
A large part of that jump is based on Yao's appeal not only to
his fellow Chinese but to other Asians as well. Ethnicity of
ticket buyers is a difficult trend to track, but the Rockets have
done it by monitoring the racial makeup of their group sales.
Last season less than 0.5% of group sales were to Asians; this
year it's between 11% and 12%. Other teams in cities with large
Asian populations, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Golden State
Warriors, for example, have built ticket packages around Yao's
appearances. When Houston played at Oakland on Nov. 27, the P.A.
announcements were made in English and in Mandarin, and Yao
delivered a videotaped message thanking fans for coming. Let's
see if LeBron can have that kind of impact.

Yao is the main reason that 12 regional channels in China
televise NBA games--10 more than last season--in addition to the
national CCTV network. This season 30 of the 120 broadcasts will
feature Yao's Rockets. And the Asian market is not only going to
watch, but it's also going to buy. "Asian and Asian-American
consumers haven't plugged in to sneakers and sports apparel,"
says Thomaselli. "I could see a whole Yao line." Indeed, the
first shipment of NBA-licensed duds is due to arrive in the Land
of 1.3 Billion in April, with signature jerseys from a dozen or
so of the usual suspects (Kobe, Shaq, Iverson) plus a Houston
number 11 jersey that is expected to fly off the shelves. The
league has long had a global vision that the other pro leagues
lacked; now, at least in Asia, it has the main ingredient to help
realize that vision.

In endorsement income Yao is, naturally, far behind Jordan, who
still commands about $30 million per year, but then, Ming is
coming and Michael is going. (We think.) Exact figures on Yao's
deals have not been made public, but according to informed
sources, he will make at least $4 million as a pitchman this
season, and within the next few years he could be raking in $10
million annually. At 22, Yao is already in that rare category of
athletes who make more off-court than on. (An estimated 5% of his
four-year, $18 million salary goes to the Chinese Basketball
Association, which released him to play in Houston.)

What Yao thinks of all this is hard to say. He has made almost no
public comment about his sudden appeal and, lately, hasn't made
many comments of any kind. Team Yao (five strategists who guide
his career), the Rockets and Yao himself all felt he was
stretching himself too thin with interviews, photo shoots and
endorsement responsibilities, and access to him has been
restricted. But it's clear that Yao has a big say in what he does
and doesn't do off the court. "He doesn't drink, so you won't see
him endorsing anything alcoholic," says marketing expert Bill
Sanders, one member of Team Yao. "He's very technology-minded and
made it clear he wants to pursue those opportunities. He won't be
rushed into anything, because that's his nature. If we're patient
and visionary, Yao could become a sports-marketing icon."

Whoa, lots of buzzwords there. But the early corporate courtship
of Yao has been eye-opening. There is Yao, one of only four
active athletes featured in an ad on Super Bowl Sunday, smiling
down at Mini-Me (actor Verne Troyer, from the Austin Powers
movies) on behalf of Apple's new laptops. There is Yao having
some fun with his name for Visa. Soon Yao will be pitching
Gatorade; a major deal is about to be announced. In China, Yao
will be hawking wireless service (for China Unicom) and games for
mobile phones (on behalf of Sorrent, a San Mateo, Calif.,
company). On the Web, Yao will be at www.yaoming.net, accessible
in both English and Mandarin, a site for purchasing Yao apparel
and for joining the Yao Ming Fan Club.

Could Yao be a supersized flavor of the month rather than a
commercial evergreen? For all the wow surrounding Yao, there are
potential stumbling blocks on his road to marketing immortality.
First, top endorsers are generally recognized as being of
championship caliber, be it in a team or an individual sport; the
aging-cowboy appeal of Arnold Palmer, who earns an estimated $15
million per year from endorsements, would mean zilch were he not
the onetime master of the realm. "For an athlete to move product
in America, he either needs to perform extremely well or be
recognized as the reason his team does," says Ray Clark, CEO of
The Marketing Arm, a Dallas sports and marketing consulting firm
that helped put together Yao's Apple deal. "Probably both." For
all his potential, Yao is not yet a dominant center, even given
the paucity of that breed. And while the Rockets are
exciting--doubly so because quicksilver point guard Steve Francis
plays yin to Yao's yang (or is it yang to Yao's yin?)--their
advancing far into the postseason is no guarantee, locked as they
are in the hellish Western Conference. Marketing experts agree
that the earning power of the Toronto Raptors' Carter, the
Minnesota Timberwolves' Garnett and the Orlando Magic's McGrady
has been limited by team failures.

Then, too, big men are often a tough sell, particularly in the
shoe market, which historically has kicked NBA players into the
endorsement stratosphere. Shaq's killer smile, which mitigates an
on-court image of pure bullishness, has helped him shill
successfully for Burger King, Nestle and Radio Shack, but the Big
Willy Loman hasn't made as much of a splash for Starter shoes.
Nike admits that of the big men who have been in its stable, only
Garnett was a reliable shoe salesman--and he subsequently bolted
for And 1. Nike is enthusiastic about Yao ("Nothing in my
12-month plan is more important than getting Yao signed," says
Ralph Greene, the company's global director of basketball) but is
not panting over him ("There's always a question of how
promotional hype, which Yao has, translates to shoe sales," says
Greene). The best guess is that Yao will be hard-pressed to get a
seven-figure shoe contract. (The prospective value of LeBron
James's first shoe deal has been estimated at $5 million per
year, and Bryant's new deal may be worth three times that.)

There is also the matter of Yao's ability to speak English. The
Apple spot with Troyer capitalized on Yao's radiant smile, while
Visa tried to mine Yo-Yao exchanges between Yao and employees and
customers at a souvenir store. "But you can't use non-verbal ads
forever," says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports and
Celebrities, an Evanston, Ill., company that links advertisers
with athletes and celebrities. "Yao's success as an endorser will
ultimately depend upon how well he masters the language."

That might turn out to be a nonissue; though Yao generally speaks
to large groups only with the help of his interpreter, Colin
Pine, those close to him have heard him speak understandable
English. Yao's ethnicity is the one thing that sets him apart
from all other athlete-endorsers, large or small, center or
guard, winning team or losing team. At the same time, the way
he's handled himself--he's competitive without being
combative--has kept him a popular figure in his homeland, where
chest-beating, money-grabbing jocks aren't fixtures in the
culture. Team Yao's studies show that only movie star Jet Li is
better known there than Yao. "The Chinese have never had [a
professional] athlete succeed on the world stage," says Eric
Zhang, Yao's closest advisor. "They've been waiting for someone
like Yao. Now is his time."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [COVER] NBA MIDSEASON REPORT The Year Of Yao Ming He Shoots He Smiles He SellsCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GREAT WALL Wasting no time making his presence felt in the paint, Yao is blocking two shots per game.COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH YAO, BABY! The Houston fans took to Yao right away, and his commercial appeal was quickly apparent to Apple and Visa.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: VISA USA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: APPLE COMPUTER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO MING IT ON For 6'9" Brian Grant of the Heat, trying to contain Yao and his repertoire of post moves is a tall order.

For more NBA news, plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to
si.com/basketball.

"Yao won't be rushed into anything," says one of his
advisers. "If we're patient and visionary, he could become a
sports-marketing icon."