Yao had missed most of the last season due to surgery and recovery for a foot injury, playing only five games. He had been optimistic about his recovery period and lower performance, telling Yahoo!’s Marc Spears in March 2010, “A career is almost like a car race. You push the gas to see how good the car is. It takes time to get from zero to 100 miles [per hour]. This is the same thing. You don’t want to hit a hard brake. This is a hard brake for me. If you want me to start up again, you probably need me to take some time.”
But that final injury was too much, and now one of the NBA’s most important figures in its global market is retired.
Yao was the perfect international player. Even the story of his coming to play for the NBA has mythic elements, with resistance from the Chinese government and struggles between agents. His original team, the Shanghai Sharks, did not want to let him go. His origin story paints the picture of a national legend powering through obstacles to be able to trounce teams on an international level. The legend continued as he fought for his country in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and got involved with high-profile Chinese charities. In interviews, he was witty and clever, often answering questions with dryly humorous remarks, which fans began to dub as “Yao Quotes“. Immensely talented, handsome and proud of his homeland, he more or less singlehandedly created the NBA market in China.
While Yao Ming wasn’t the first Chinese national to break into the NBA–Wang Zhizhi did it in 2001– “Yao was the best and most equipped to take the game to unprecedented heights“, and, according to former NBA executive Terry Rhoads, the “the tipping point for the NBA business in China“.
China is no small market. During the build-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Yao Ming was ubiquitous in Chinese marketing. You couldn’t escape him. It seemed Yao’s face was plastered in every television ad the Chinese networks played. He was considered the ambassador between basketball, the Asian markets, and China.
Yao’s influence has allowed other NBA players like Chuck Hayes to participate in promotional marketing campaigns overseas in China. With Yao gone, can interest in basketball survive in China, especially since there aren’t any Chinese players up for contract next season? Yi Jianlan’s option was not picked up by the wizards, and Mengke Bateer and Sun Yue no longer play for the NBA.
It’s a big problem for the companies who rely on those markets, and a problem for an NBA trying to increase global interest. According to popular Chinese site Sina Weibo, 57% of users surveyed said they would stop watching the NBA after Yao retires. That’s a big number from a country that comprises the second largest NBA market in the world, drawing 30 million viewers a week. According to NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, China currently accounts for about half of the NBA’s international revenue. Yikes. With Yi Jianlian’s option not being picked up the Wizards this season , Chinese viewers who had a vested interest in watching nationals play may drop off. Yao Ming’s legacy may be leaving the NBA’s global market in ruins.
But the fact is that Yao Ming has managed to set a precedent, both for Asian players who dream of playing for the NBA, and for Asian basketball markets. Over the years there have been increasing interest in basketball in China, with numbers estimated at 300 million people in China playing the game, and on Sina Weibo, the NBA has 4.35 million fans. While interest in the NBA may wane without a Chinese player in the mix, Yao Ming’s achievement in making basketball a reality in China is very real. He’s opened the doors for Asian players to try their hand at the big leagues. The NBA is often fairly culturally elitist (think about all the sniffing that goes on when the Raptors, or any team, snag the European players), and Yao’s retirement will shake things up a little.
Of Yao Ming, fellow retiring NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal wrote, “Yao will definitely be missed. He is in my mind one of the best centers ever to play. He is the one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of China, and I will miss him.”
And in his absence, who will spring forth?