The World

The Yao Effect

I was a bit intrigued by the above poster that I saw in Hong Kong last week, mainly for the inclusion of forward Shane Battier along with the Heat’s “big three”. Battier’s certainly not an obscure player–a dependable veteran known for drawing fouls and giving better than average TV interviews–but he’s not exactly a household name.  

He’s never been an all-star. He wasn’t parting of the Heat’s opening night starting lineup, which featured Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers in addition to those other three guys. And I’m guessing that in terms of players non-basketball fans recognize, he ranks behind Ray Allen and Chris “Birdman” Andersen.

So why is he on the poster? Well, it turns out that Shane Battier is a really big star in China. This has less to do with his skill as a player or his personality than the fact that from 2006 to 2011 he played on the Houston Rockets with one Yao Ming, and as such all his games during this period were televised in China.

Known as “Mr. President” to his Chinese fans, Battier has his own branded basketball shoe on the Chinese market and was apparently almost as big a draw as James and Wade when the team traveled to Shanghai for some exhibition games last year. He describes himself as “third behind (James and Wade) in China because of my longevity and my relationship with China.”

Battier isn’t the only onetime Rocket to benefit from the Yao bounce. Tracy McGrady was famously one of the leading vote-getters for the 2010 all-star game, based solely on support from legions of Chinese Houston fans, despite the fact that he was injured that year and hadn’t played a game. T-Mac later played for a season with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Qingdao Eagles and remains popular in China. (Our tour guide at one site told me he had chosen the name “Tracy” to use in his English class in honor of his favorite player.)

China is a hoops-crazy nation these days. The NBA took in around $150 million in revenue from the country in 2012 and Commissioner David Stern says he expects that figure to rise by 10 percent annually for the forseeable future. Players like Kobe Bryant are mobbed by fans when they visit. Basketball courts seem to be everywhere, including, I noticed, one for the guards inside the walls of the Forbidden City. And Yao’s goofy grin seems to be advertising products on every other billboard.

Yao shouldn’t get all the credit for this. Michael Jordan and the Dream Team did a lot to globalize the game, including in East Asia. But the retired Houston center certainly turbocharged the appeal of the game in his home country. If the above photo demonstrates anything, it’s that achievements on the court aside, Yao may have turned more people into basketball fans than any player since Jordan.