As the 2008-2009 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) prepares to start later this week, NBA fans should already know that when Yao Ming began playing in 2002, he opened up professional basketball to aspiring Chinese back in China, and to Chinese Americans as a potential fan and marketing segment for his team, the Houston Rockets, and the NBA in general.
Following in his footsteps is Yi Jianlian, the second high-profile NBA player to come from China. After playing his rookie season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi was traded and is now set to play for the New Jersey Nets.
The Nets happen to be located in the New York City metropolitan area, home to an estimated 650,000 Chinese Americans. As the NY Times reports, these numbers and the potential revenue from the Chinese American fan base in squarely in the minds of the Nets organization:
Yi’s name recognition runs high, and people in Chinatown said they would go watch him, if time and funds allow it, but would not necessarily go out of their way to cross the Hudson River. . . .
The Nets are hopeful that Yi connects with the nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the New York area and beyond, reeling in a coveted new fan base. And like Yao, the Houston Rockets center, Yi carries global appeal in hailing from the world’s most populous nation. . . .
“He has to build a relationship with the community,” said Sunny Moy, president of the Asian American Youth Center. “Right now, everybody is more into Yao because Yi is still nearly a rookie. Yi is a good player, I’ve seen him play, but he has to donate tickets, connect with the kids in order to have an effect.” . . .
The Nets are offering a four-game package aimed at the Chinese-American community for games against the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets and the Lakers feature the league’s two other Chinese players in Yao and the rookie Sun Yue.
The Nets hired a multicultural marketing agency and are planning game-night promotions that include a night serving as Yi’s interpreter and a celebration of the Chinese New Year.
As I’ve said before, whether Americans like/want it or not, the world is getting smaller and the many manifestations of globalization will only continue to become more prominent in American society. In this case, it comes in the form of the Nets trying to market Yi to the Chinese Americans in the NYC metro area and the 1.3 billion Chinese back in China.
It’s also nice to see Asian athletes continue to become more popular in professional sports. At the same time, as I’ve also said in the past, it would also be nice if Asian American (as opposed to international Asian) athletes get to enjoy the same kind of popularity.
Fortunately, with the recent rise and fame of athletes like professional golfer Anthony Kim, to name the most recent example, we (hopefully) seem to be moving slowly in that direction.