How Yao Ming Launched the NBA China Into the Stratosphere (Pt 2 of 3)


This is Part 2 in a three part series on the awesome success of David Stern and the NBA in China. Part 1 is here.

“You can make an analogy between Chinese watching basketball in the 1990’s and Americans watching The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960’s. Americans weren’t watching because Ed Sullivan was particularly great looking. In fact, he was a pretty ugly guy to be on television. Most Americans watched him because there were only three television stations back then and he was what was on.

And then one day in 1964, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. And Americans went crazy. A powerful competitive dynamic was overwhelmed by a consumer and cultural phenomenon.

We argued that the early success of the NBA in China was similar. Their early success was due to mass dissemination of popular content plus this same Ed Sullivan-type limited-competition dynamic. People liked it. But it was also one of the few things on television at that time. And this built up a consumer base over many years.

If the NBA-CCTV deal was The Ed Sullivan Show, then Yao Ming was the Beatles. He showed up on the stage one day and the Chinese went crazy. It was a cultural phenomenon. Within a few years, he was leading the Chinese team in the Beijing Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, figuratively and literally carrying the Chinese flag.

Yao was already somewhat famous in China prior to the NBA. His mother and father had both played basketball professionally. Yao had been successful in the Chinese Basketball Association. And he was known for being crazy tall. By his 10th birthday, he was already six feet tall. Plus, he was an extremely relatable person. He had succeeded through the State-sponsored athletic system, an opportunity available to any Chinese citizen. Plus, the Chinese just liked him. And when he joined the NBA in 2002, they went crazy.

AAIA_wDGAAAAAQAAAAAAAAtOAAAAJDgzYzNlNmRiLTRkZWQtNDExOS05NzdmLWFlMzMzNThmMzEyNwA big and a bit strange statue of Yao Ming in Beijing

(Photo by Achim Hepp, Creative Commons license with commercial use. Link here)

According to New York University Professor Luis Cabral, in the years after Yao joined the Houston Rockets, a game was normally viewed by 1M people in the US would attract up to 30M viewers in China. In Yao’s first season, the NBA signed contracts with 12 local Chinese TV stations, doubling the number of games broadcast to 170.

Yao was a consumer phenomenon. But he also greatly benefitted from the consumer base that had been built in the 1990’s. Houston Rockets games had already been watched on CCTV for years. The NBA already had a Chinese language website. And NBA stars had already been touring China in the off seasons.

The Yao phenomenon peaked during the 2008 Summer Olympics, where he was effectively master of ceremonies. He has since retired and people tend to point to him as the obvious reason for the NBA’s success in China. But they forget that CCTV has now been broadcasting NBA games in China for 27 years. Yao was critical but so were the periods prior to and after his involvement.

Post-Yao, Rising Chinese Consumers Keep Lifting The NBA

In February 2011, New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin created another Yao-like surge of interest in basketball. While “Linsanity” helped boost the NBA’s China momentum, it also raised questions about the NBA China post-Yao. Without a relatable figure for China to rally around, would maintaining interest and viewership be difficult?

The answers appears to be no. The reality is that post-Yao, the NBA is more popular than ever in China. There are lots of explanations floating around for this. Some argue that the sport is now mostly a consumer phenomenon and has always benefited from its long history in China (factory workers used to play basketball for fitness). Some argue the sport is uniquely suited to an urban environment. Some argue that soccer and other sports have had poor management (and some scandals). Some claim basketball is somewhat similar to tai chi and the focus on movement resonates. Some claim it is because Michael Jordan and Yao Ming both were on teams that happened to wear red uniforms.

Our explanation is that David Stern effectively managed an evolving mix of consumer, competitive and government factors. The NBA succeeded initially because of the enthusiasm of Chinese consumers and because it captured a Giants, Dwarves and the State situation (i.e., the CCTV partnership). And then Yao Ming, a consumer phenomenon, came along and that further rocketed them upwards. However, since then things have actually gotten even better. By virtue of some particularly clever strategic moves, the NBA has become a unique China business with virtually no competition.”

Part 3 of this article is located here. Part 1 is located here

The above excerpt is from my book The One Hour China Consumer Book. I think it is the best thing I have written. Available here.

Thanks for reading, jeff


I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.

I am the founder of TechMoat Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps retailers, brands, and technology companies exploit digital change to grow faster, innovate better and build digital moats. Get in touch here.

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Top Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash


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