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The NBA in China: Opening a Super Market
But the explosion in popularity truly occurred in 2002, when the Rockets selected Yao with the No. 1 pick.
"Yao really represents this tipping point for the NBA business in China. The emergence of the digital media, together with this growing middle class, really represents this perfect storm," said Terry Rhoads, managing partner of a Shanghai-based sports marketing firm. Rhoads is a former Nike executive who signed Yao to his first contract before forming his own company, Zou Marketing -- "Zou" means "Go" in Mandarin -- five years ago.
The NBA "didn't build Yao Ming. He sort of landed from [the] heavens," Rhoads said. "But they're not going to waste the gift that is Yao Ming. That's why the NBA should be applauded. They have an operationally sound and structured business model for China and that will help turn the China market into their most important and successful and lucrative market outside of America. If we go out 30, 40 years from now, crazier things could be said. China could be a basketball market that competes with the United States."
While explaining the NBA's potential growth in China, Rhoads suggested a parallel to Nike's success in the country. Nike and its chief shoe rival, Adidas, are both expected to reach $1 billion in sales next year. But Rhoads said that when he left Nike China in 2002, the company was worth $100 million. In 1994, when he joined the company, it was valued at $8 million.
"What could actually happen is, in the next three to five years, the overall sale for basketball product, not only for us, but for all brands, will possibly surpass the U.S," said Travis Gonzales, Adidas global public relations manager. "China is that market, if we're all doing our math right."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.