Outside the United States, few love basketball like China. The NBA is a big deal in the world’s most populous country. Linsanity reached the world’s most populous nation quickly after it took off in New York.
Just hours after NBA commissioner David Stern predicted that the league’s appeal in China would mean an annual increase in revenue of ten percent a year, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated Miami Heat in front of a full house in Shanghai.
Stern announced that television and digital rights in the country could bring in as much as $150 million to the sport.
Just this week, a plan was announced by the NBA and a Chinese partner to build a basketball center in Tianjin, a large port city just to the east of Beijing.
Much of the increase in popularity has been attributed to the fact that Yao Ming’s seven year stint with Houston Rockets made him the biggest sports star in China and the biggest Chinese star around the world.
In 2007, 100 million Chinese people tuned in to watch Yao take on countryman Yi Jianlian of the Milwaukee Bucks. An estimated 300 million actually play the game.
There were concerns expressed last year as Yao retired from the game that the NBA would lose a lot of its fanbase in the China, but that has not yet happened. The big stars in the NBA are famous in China too.
“The next Yao is LeBron James,” Stern said, “The fans of China are so smart and so sophisticated, that will lift LeBron, Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant to be the next Yao.”
James, who put on a great show for his Chinese fans against the Clippers, paid tribute to Yao’s influence in helping the game grow in the Middle Kingdom.
"That's the most inspiring thing," James said. "Not only was Yao in their backyard, he could also really play the game at a high level so it definitely helps a lot of kids as far as saying 'I can do this and I can do it at a high level.'"
James is a genuine star in China. His moves on the court had the fans calling for “King James” to be named MVP.
"This is my ninth time in this country and every city I've been to has welcomed me with open arms," he added. "Either playing a game of basketball, teaching or inspiring the game of basketball, there's been some great opportunities for me and there have been some great times with the kids here who love the game of basketball. They're always excited about the game, no matter where it's played, no matter how it's played, what level it's played at and you can have a great deal of respect for that.
Yao is now the owner of the Shanghai Sharks, a Chinese Basketball Association franchise.
“We now have the best NBA spokesperson full time in his home country and in Shanghai, his home city,” Stern said.
Basketball is still bouncing along very nicely.