By Ben Klayman - Analysis
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chinese basketball star Yao Ming’s foot surgery will keep him out next season, but the National Basketball Association will not feel the pain in China because the U.S. sports league has grown beyond any one player there, analysts said on Friday.
Yao’s NBA team, the Houston Rockets, said the towering center would undergo surgery next week after fracturing his foot during the playoffs in May, and would miss the 2009-2010 season.
For a league that has focused on building its fan base in China and making money through its TV contracts and sales of its branded-merchandise, the news was not a total shock as the injury to China’s most famous sports personality had previously been called “career threatening.”
However, the sport’s popularity in China should allow the NBA to shake off the loss.
“Yao was a catalyst for the NBA’s growth in China but now shares the stage with so many other players and league-sponsored initiatives,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
“Yao’s absence, while disappointing, will not damage the NBA China effort,” he added. “Rather, it will demonstrate how diversified the business has already become.”
The NBA has supported Chinese basketball for decades, including first hosting the Chinese national team in 1985. Chinese interest spiked after 7-foot-6 Yao joined the NBA in 2002 and the league now has 51 different networks broadcasting games in China.
An estimated 300 million people -- a total equal to the entire U.S. population -- play basketball in China, the NBA has said previously. China’s government also is planning to build basketball courts in up to 800,000 rural villages.
Those numbers in turn add up to rising TV ratings and sales figures for the NBA.
NBA revenue in China, the league’s largest international market, is rising 30 percent to 40 percent per year. The league previously projected retail sales in China to rise 60 percent this year and another 70 percent in 2010.
And the NBA’s popularity in China seems to have taken root as sales of Yao’s jersey rank only No. 10 there, trailing such American stars as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
“I don’t think the NBA’s success in China is solely predicated on Chinese players,” said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. “All the great leagues have gone on without injured superstars.”
Meanwhile, the number of viewers of NBA programing in China rose 34 percent last season to a record 1.6 billion, while traffic on the Chinese section of NBA.com has surged more than 50 percent.
In October, the NBA formed a joint venture with sports and entertainment group AEG to build at least a dozen “NBA-style” arenas in major cities throughout greater China, and in January 2008 the league formed NBA China, a venture that could evolve into an NBA-affiliated league.
Without Yao, a seven-time NBA all-star, the NBA could see a small dip in Chinese TV ratings, but the damage will not be serious, said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.
“It will have an impact on viewership in China, but the foundation that has been built is at a relatively high level so there will still be good ratings,” he said.
Reporting by Ben Klayman; editing by Carol Bishopric