Copyright The New York Times
It is a mystery worth exploring: Yao Ming, the best-known athlete from a country of 1.3 billion people and the top vote-getter among N.B.A. All-Stars, is the name on the back of the third best-selling jersey in China.
It sounds like an extraordinary reversal of conventional wisdom. Yao was regarded as a phenomenon, an athletic symbol of China’s rise as a world power, an unstoppable force of marketing in China and a basketball bridge to the United States.
What, then, does it mean that Yao ranks third in Chinese jersey sales behind Tracy McGrady, his Houston teammate, and Allen Iverson, in figures compiled from the start of the season through Dec. 31?
Not to disparage McGrady and Iverson, but they are not Chinese, nor do they stand 90 inches high. So does their ascending appeal in China mean that Yao has lost his power to wow? Is he surrendering his cachet to the littler men?
Ric Bucher, the author of “Yao: A Life in Two Worlds,” said yesterday that Chinese fans were discerning and knew the pecking order of stardom in the N.B.A. “They take a tremendous amount of pride in Yao, but they also recognize that he’s not the best player in the N.B.A,” Bucher said.
Nor is he the best player on the Rockets. That’s McGrady.
Bill Duffy, Yao’s agent, said: “Yao is a fixture there, but there’s a newness about someone like McGrady and an appreciation of his ability. When he was with Orlando, they probably didn’t know much about him.”
This, then, is not about the fall of Yao, even if this is the first time his jersey has ranked below No. 1 in China. This is about the global marketing of a league that will have 270 N.B.A. games carried this season on 24 Chinese TV networks Ã³ 69 of them featuring the Rockets.
“We don’t believe this is a coincidence,” said Sal LaRocca, senior vice president for global merchandising at the N.B.A. “The Rockets are heavily televised, and Tracy McGrady is highly identifiable.” Iverson, LaRocca said, “is a case unto himself.”
“He continues to be immensely popular around the world,” LaRocca added.
It does not hurt McGrady in China to be associated with Yao, and for Chinese viewers to see him amass nearly 27 points and 7 rebounds a game. Yao, in a season that has been shortened by injuries, is averaging 19.7 points and 9 rebounds.
Making promotional tours of China last summer did not hurt McGrady or Iverson. McGrady was there with his sneaker maker, Adidas, with its vast retail presence in China, and Iverson was there for Reebok, which produces his long-popular signature shoe line.
According to an Associated Press report, 800 pairs of a special-edition McGrady shoe sold out in Chinese stores in one day last summer.
And it did not hurt McGrady’s exposure to the Chinese fan base to have joined the Rockets in time for the China Games in 2004, when Houston played Sacramento in exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai.
Bucher recalled during those exhibitions how well informed the fans were, offering players applause in direct proportion to their place in the N.B.A. universe. “The subtleties were impressive,” he said.
China is a consequential and growing market for the N.B.A. It is the league’s fifth-largest outlet for licensed products. Currently, LaRocca said, the licensed jersey sales number in the low hundreds of thousands.
And here is where Yao may not be getting his due, LaRocca said, because of counterfeiting of Yao’s tops. If the only Yao jerseys worn in China were licensed by the N.B.A., he may still be No. 1.
“If you think about it, and this is speculation,” LaRocca said, “if you were making an unauthorized product in China, it would be a Yao product.”
Jerseys in Yao’s supersized dimensions Ã³ a size 54 with four inches of extra length Ã³ are not manufactured for the Chinese market (though they are in the United States). The popularity of McGrady and Iverson’s jerseys, apart from their skills and performance, might have something to do with their size, especially the 6-foot Iverson’s, being closer to the average fan’s.
“Historically, most people identify with guards,” LaRocca said.
Only three big men Ã³ Yao, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett Ã³ rank in the top 10 of Chinese licensed jersey sales. Only two Ã³ O’Neal and Tim Duncan Ã³ are in the top 10 over all; further down on that list, Yao is 25th. Being No. 3 in Chinese sales may be surprising, but it is not a shabby performance for Yao, who remains a huge force in his native country through his endorsement of Pepsi, his video games and his Web site. “His brand generates business far beyond jersey sales,” Duffy said. “It’s iconic.”
Yao’s sartorial appeal in China, at least through the prism of sleeveless jersey sales, is not likely to deviate throughout his career, LaRocca said.
“He’ll be at or near the top,” he said, “as long as he’s in the league.”