Yao-Yi matchup could set ratings records

(China Daily/Agencies)
Updated: 2007-11-09 09:22

This is like the Super Bowl - in China.

In China, Friday's NBA game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets is expected to draw massive TV ratings.

The excitement in China will be as palpable as that peculiar American quasi-holiday when virtually the whole nation stands glued to their television sets, amid parties and wild celebrations.


Yao Ming 

In a similar fashion, fan clubs of both Yi and Yao will host game parties around the country. The early-season showdown could change Chinese people's traditional definitions of watching a ball game, as they flock to bars and playgrounds with beers and basketballs in their hands.

"It's the two best basketball players in the country coming to play in the best basketball league in the world," said Wang Meng, a sports writer who covers the Rockets for Titan Sports, a Beijing-based newspaper. "It doesn't matter who wins. It's the best thing that can happen in China, because people will be excited either way."

Wang said the game is expected to draw more than 200 million viewers in China.

"The numbers are just extraordinary," said Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA's president of global marketing partnerships and international business operations. "It's very significant. It's showing how much the globalization of the league is on the rise."

"You don't always see Chinese fans watch a game in bars together, do you?" said Xiao Siyun, member of the basketball union at the University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

"We always stay at home and watch the game, but A-lian (Yi's nickname in China) and Big Yao gave us a passion we want to share, so we will go out and enjoy the game together for the first time."

Compared with sports-crazed Western fans, who routinely go out to bars and restaurants for major sporting events, Chinese fans tend to be more introverted and are somehow not as willing to share their feelings.

That's why you won't find any major fan parties like the ones at The Den earlier this year, where Australian and Indian fans battled it out during the Cricket World Cup, a sports gala that very few Chinese even know about.

But the upcoming Chinese NBA derby is about to change things. According to Yaomingfanclub.com, there will be about 50 fan parties with some 2,000 fans getting involved tomorrow morning in Beijing. And the locations are everywhere - from bars and restaurants to college gyms.


Yi Jianlian 

NBA China will also stage its coming-out party at the Goose and Duck Pub. They expect to attract as many as 300 fans.

"I am not shy to say this is a big step for me," said Shen Ye, a 16-year-old fan of Yi. "Stepping out of my private space and into the crowd is an exciting move for me. I don't know how it feels to watch my idol with 100 guys like me, but I am sure it would be more interesting than watching my small television on the sofa."

And these would-be barflys couldn't care less about the end result of the game.

"Man, forget about that, we are not watching the Olympic Games," Shen said. "I just want to shout and shout and enjoy this great atmosphere. I am proud of sharing my passion with friends out there."

Cultural shift

Amid all the excitement, the game will be - as fans have called it - a clash of Chinese cultures; tradition verses trend; modesty against flamboyance.

Leading the Houston Rockets is Yao, a man born to one of the most traditional sports families in Shanghai. He received strict and systematic basketball training over the years without ever getting to see an NBA game on TV or wear name-brand basketball shoes.

At the other end, Yi: a post-1985 generation from Shenzhen, China's vanguard city in reform and opening-up. The youngster idolizes Michael Jordan and spent most of his childhood playing street basketball until he was noticed by a pro coach in a three-on-three street-ball national tournament.

While the two have their share of similarities on the court, off court they are as different as can be.

The showdown is actually the third Chinese derby in the NBA. In 2002, the Dallas Mavericks, featuring forward Wang Zhizhi, played against the Denver Nuggets and center Menk Bateer. And two years later Yao faced off with Wang's Miami Heat, even though Wang hardly got off the bench in that game.

But Saturday's game is by far the most anticipated since both players play key roles on their respective teams.

Yi's NBA career is only four games old, but he has already impressed his teammates, coaches and opposing players. Yi ranks as the team's fourth-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game, and he is averaging 26 minutes in his starting role.

Yi and Yao are teammates on the front line with the Chinese national team and will be key figures in the Beijing Olympics next summer.

"This one is a little more built up," Bucks assistant coach Jarinn Akana, who was with the Nuggets during the first all-Chinese game, told JSOnline.

"Yao has established himself, and Yi was a top pick (sixth overall) in the draft. For me, I'm happy for China, to tell you the truth."

Alongside the prevalent fan parties, the game will air on 16 television stations, including the government network CCTV, as well as two webcasts on NBA.com and Sohu.com.

Basketball is getting to be a big business in China as the NBA has deals with 51 TV stations in the country. In addition, the NBA has marketing deals with 20 different companies.

Millions of Chinese watch NBA games, and 30% of the traffic to NBA.com comes from China.

"Six years ago, people saw Dodger (Wang) and Bateer, and now they get to see these next two guys. Who knows what is going to happen in the future?" added Akana.

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