Established in 2008 with an initial evaluation of $2.3 billion and an estimated annual revenue exceeding $150 million, NBA China’s eye-popping numbers demonstrate the power of basketball as means of cultural exchange between the United States and China.
“NBA basketball is clearly the most popular sports league in the country,” NBA China’s Chief Executive David Shoemaker said to the New York Times in 2012. “[NBA China] is a cash-flowing and fast-growing company at present.”
With 300 million Chinese playing basketball in 2012 alone, many have called it the country’s “national sport” to underscore the same near-religiosity seen in America in regard to football. For example, as first pointed out by the New York Times, despite a time shift that coincided NBA games with the Chinese morning rush in 2002, regular season games frequently enjoyed a viewership of 10 million or more in China.
Basketball has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity in the country since 1987, when Commissioner David Stern began selling NBA game footage to the Chinese all-sports television channel China Central Television (CCTV) in exchange for advertising revenue. The investment paid off -- its estimated fan base is now somewhere in the ballpark of 450 million people -- and, within a few years, other American companies began purchasing advertising space to reach previously untapped Chinese consumers.
Perhaps the biggest economic victory for the NBA, however, came in 2002, when the Shanghai Sharks’ 7’6” center was selected with the first pick in the draft.
That player was Yao Ming.
Although players like Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and especially Kobe Bryant are household names in China, Yao remains the country’s pride and joy, even after his retirement. The only Chinese player to have ever been selected at the top spot, No. 11 is the third of five Chinese players to have competed in the NBA.
Yao Ming earned eight All-Star Game selections during his eight-year NBA career, and in 2016 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. But the Rockets’ star center arguably had an even larger impact off the court, serving as a sort of cultural ambassador during his tenure in the NBA. Having come from the previously disfavored Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Yao challenged the idea that Chinese basketball players could not compete on the world stage.
Now considered the most competitive men’s basketball league in Asia, the CBA has come to include many high-caliber American players. These players include first-round picks Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith, 2011 NCAA National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette, and, perhaps most notably, All-Stars Steve Francis, Kenyon Martin, and Stephon Marbury.
Having started in 1995, the CBA now includes 20 teams across the Northern and Southern divisions. Despite repeated buyout offers from the NBA, the CBA opted to build its own brand and to remain under Chinese ownership.
The NBA, with an ever-growing Chinese interest in professional American basketball, has made attempts to celebrate its presence in China, with differing levels of success.
In March, for example, the league announced that the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors will play two preseason games as part of NBA Global Games China 2017, after which 14 NBA teams will have played 24 total games in China. In addition, the NBA encourages player appearances and tours in the country, community enrichment, like the Basketball Without Borders Program, and marketing cooperation, like players advertising their signature basketball shoes in China.
However, the NBA has occasionally demonstrated its loose grasp on the complexity of Chinese culture, including a fortune-cookie giveaway promotion at Yao’s first game in Miami in 2002. Also of note was the NBA’s relatively loose handling of Shaquille O’Neal’s 2003 comment, “Tell Yao Ming, ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.”
A good-spirited Yao shook off both comments and went on to receive a record 2,558,278 votes to become a 2005 All-Star starting center, a massive accomplishment considering his absence from most of the previous season and a testament to his runaway popularity in China. His jersey was retired by the Houston Rockets on Feb. 3, 2017, which intentionally coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year in order to have the “maximum global impact.”
“I can tell you that everybody in the league -- teams, players, executives -- owe a great deal of gratitude for everything he has done for the game of basketball,” said Rockets President Tad Brown of Yao.
To the delight of both the CBA and Chinese fans, Yao Ming returned to the Shanghai Sharks as an owner and, on Feb. 23, became the league’s sixth president.
Although no Chinese basketball superstar has stepped forth to fill Yao’s (size 18) shoes yet, hope remains that a mixture of the country’s exploding population, love of the sport, and improving professional leagues will yield results soon. With 16 gold medals at the FIBA Asia Championship and 12 at the Asia Games all-time, many consider the country long overdue for an Olympic medal, too.