Yao phenomenon

Updated: 2011-07-21 08:04

By Tym Glaser and Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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Yao phenomenon

Tym Glaser and Sun Xiaochen take a look at basketball life in China after the big man's big decision on Wednesday.

Ming dynasty ends

A massive chasm opened up in the Chinese basketball world on Wednesday, and it could take a long time to fill - depending on who you speak to.

When Yao Ming, the first Chinese basketballer to make a real impact in the NBA - and on the world stage, announced his retirement at a press conference in his hometown of Shanghai, it closed the door on an all-star and possibly Hall of Fame career, but also dimmed the lights somewhat on the game in China.

Now, without the towering center, local fans of the NBA will either turn their attention to Yi Jianlian of the Washington Wizards or have a residual interest in Yao's Houston Rockets, but neither is likely to last for long.

That's how big the big man's NBA influence was; and let's not forget the national team which was basically built around Yao.

However, NBA China CEO David Shoemaker has put a positive spin on Yao's bowing out of the game.

"Yao was a transformational basketball player, and a testament to the globalization of the game. There are 300 million people playing basketball here in China. We are the most popular sport in the country," Shoemaker said after Wednesday's press conference

"We have more fans watching NBA games than any other sport. We have a group of select marketing partners. I am extremely confident about the game's future in the country; even with the retirement of the iconic Yao.

"(I believe) we will continue to be the most popular sport in China. And the most watched sport on television," Shoemaker said.

Ma Guoli, the CEO and managing director of Infront China, which develops and markets the CBA league and Chinese national teams, told China Daily, "According to my experience in TV broadcasting, the TV attendance of live NBA games could fall by almost a half when Yao Ming didn't play.

Yao phenomenon

"Even if Michael Jordan played during his heyday, the peak TV audience ratings couldn't match the pinnacle of when Yao played at his best.

"Most of the Chinese fans watched the Rockets' games to seek a kind of sense of belonging, because there was a player from their country there. A certain part of them were not the game's fans, but Yao's supporters," Ma said.

However, Ma said, on the plus side, Yao's retirement could boost the local league.

"Now he is heading back to the CBA as the Shanghai Sharks' owner. That should gain more focus and some endorsements back here. Possibly, it will draw some active NBA stars to play in the CBA during the (NBA) lockout. It could be good for the CBA's development," he said.

"The NBA was searching for a global ambassador for years after Jordan retired. They saw Yao Ming as the ideal image to replace MJ in terms of international influence. But now Yao's departure has rocked the league."

Li Yuanwei, a former CBA chief, who tried to implement more professionalism to the league during his tenure from 2003-2008, also sees a bright side to Yao's retirement.

"Yao gained plenty of resources and experience about running a complete professional club during his nine-year (NBA) career. He knew a lot of coaches and agents (in the US). I am sure he will use all that to operate his Sharks. It will be a good example for other domestic clubs.

"Some former NBA player have joined the CBA because of his impact, and there will be more in the future when he comes back," said Li.

China's interest in the NBA and the game may not wane too much - you only have to go to any school at recess to see boys and girls shooting hoops.

However, the departure of the face of Chinese basketball has left the sport here in a state of limbo.

Yao phenomenon

Chinese basketball player and NBA superstar Yao Ming, his wife, Ye Li, (right), his father and his mother, with his daughter, Yao Qinlei, attend the press conference in Shanghai on Wednesday. [Photo by Cui Meng / China Daily]

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