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.
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.