Michael Jordan has finally retired for good (we think), and network TV ratings for the NBA today are about half of what they were in Air's heyday. Sure, Stern has Shaq, Kobe, Tracy, LeBron, and Carmelo. But now there's Yao.
As the commish prepared to travel to China for two historic preseason games to be played in Shanghai and Beijing on Oct. 14 and 17, respectively, he sat down in the league's Fifth Avenue offices in Manhattan to talk with BusinessWeek Media Editor Tom Lowry about the power of Yao Ming, the allure of China, and the NBA's global push. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q: So let's get right to it. How does Yao's ability to promote the NBA differ from Michael Jordan's?
A: I don't think anybody was more of global icon in the NBA than Michael Jordan. But Yao is different. He's Chinese, and he is an icon for the globalization of our game. He is a symbol of this Chinese renaissance and their determination to compete on a world stage.
Q: The NBA opened its first office in China in 1992 in Hong Kong. You now have two more locations, in Shanghai and Beijing. Your games are available through 14 different TV contracts in 314 million households in China. That's pretty solid penetration at a time when U.S. companies are salivating to be part of China's booming economy. Have you become the best friend of every blue-chip CEO in America?
A: We were there before Yao, and we will be there after Yao. But the timing of his arrival in the league and what U.S. companies are looking to do in China couldn't be better.
When we decided to take the next step and play the preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing, the calls went out on a very selective basis to Reebok (RBK
), Kodak (EK
), Anheuser-Busch (BUD
), Coca-Cola (KO
), Disney (DIS
), and McDonald's (MCD
) to ask "Are you in?" And the response was yes, because each of them sees China as an emerging [market].
It's a perfect corporate storm right now between the NBA's global growth on TV, consumer products, and Internet access, [plus] the emergence of China through the World Trade Organization and the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Q: What are the risks in the explosion of Yao's popularity? He has already written his life story, and there is a documentary out about him too.
A: There are always risks. The question is whether you can sustain that rate of growth, and the answer, of course, is no. It always slows down. I think he will maintain his status, not his rate of growth. For us, he's just a piece of a broader global push that's going to see important players on every continent. We used to focus on Eastern European players, then the Western European players. And African players have come and now Latin American players and, finally, Asian players.
So many of our young players today grew up watching Michael as we expanded. The luxury for us now is that with so many players born outside the U.S. [more than 70 from 34 different countries], their countrymen are watching them. That's important for us.
Q: A lot of people see Yao as more than a ballplayer. They say he can play a special part in helping these two countries, U.S. and China, build their relations. Is that overstating Yao's role?
A: He will always remain transcendent as the homegrown product to the nation that has been totally focused, if not obsessed, with his success in America. He has really bridged a spectacular gap. We get to know a lot about his country through him, and his country gets to know a lot about us.