- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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He's 41 years old, a year removed from his NBA career, his fingerprints on the six NBA championship trophies now little more than evidence of the good days gone by in Chicago. But Michael Jordan is anything but a has-been in the marketing world, his star power still on par with the Beatles' invasion of America, as big as Elvis before he became a Vegas sideshow.
Normally kept busy either on the court or in the front office at this time of year, Jordan instead found himself amid a throng of his fans Thursday in Beijing, the first stop on his four-city tour of Asia, stumping for Nike and his Jordan brand collection, laying the foundation for what will become the next marketing battleground as the 2008 Beijing Olympics draw near.
In basketball-crazed China, home of NBA star-in-the-making Yao Ming, Jordan was greeted en masse by fans, some wearing his No. 23 jersey, some climbing atop fences, others standing on cars and still more tearing down his banners that blocked their view, all hoping for a glimpse of His Airness. The situation became so tenuous that police eventually shut down the event out of fear that it could escalate out of control.
"I'm looking forward to seeing first-hand the basketball enthusiasm throughout Asia," Jordan told ESPN.com before he left on his trip. "I want to understand what Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand means to them and hope that we can get a better understanding of each other."
Presumably, he found what he was looking for.
Better known as the location where athletic shoes are made, Asia is now the focus of multinational shoe and apparel companies. Despite its enormous consumer base and unparalleled spending power, Asia remains a largely untapped revenue stream for American companies.
China alone has an estimated 200 million basketball fans and it is believed that there are 200 million more throughout other parts of Asia. In a poll conducted in 1997, 92 percent of students in Hong Kong, ages 15-18, were familiar with the Chicago Bulls, an astonishing figure when considering that 89 percent were familiar with the NBA and 96 percent recognized the Coca-Cola brand name.
All of which would explain why Jordan will next visit Hong Kong before making his way to Taiwan and ultimately Tokyo before he returns to the States. An earlier trip to Japan was Jordan's only other venture to Asia.
Reebok went on the offensive in October when it lured Yao away from Nike with a lucrative, long-term endorsement deal. That came on the heels of it becoming the exclusive manufacturer of official NBA apparel in Asia. It also has begun sponsoring high school basketball leagues in three Chinese cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The shoe Yao wore on NBA courts this past season hit store shelves in China in December, perhaps to whet appetites before Reebok launches Yao's signature line in October.
"Yao is No. 1, in our opinion, in China right now," said John Lynch, Reebok's vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. "We don't think there is a close second, third or fourth in the endorsement world."
"In a lot of our surveys, Michael is the most impactful athlete in the country," said Cliff Torng, marketing director of Nike's Asia Pacific region. "But the beautiful thing about China is that there is enough room for both Michael and Yao."
Torng said China represents the fastest growing segment of his portfolio, with 21 percent growth last quarter.
"The sport of basketball has become worldwide, and the impact of the sport has become even greater," Jordan said. "It's not so much about competing with today's players as much as it is about being an ambassador of the sport and continuing to inspire youth and fans with the excellence that I have built over the years."
Jordan has kept a low profile since retiring a third -- and presumably final -- time from the NBA. He has appeared in only two commercials since January 2003, one for Gatorade and one for Brand Jordan. Yet, marketing research shows that he remains the most effective pitchman among American athletes.
"He's still head and shoulders above everyone else," said Dave Tice of Knowledge Networks, which conducted a 2003 poll with Advertising Age to study which athletes influence purchasing decision of American consumers. "He could be out of the spotlight for the next few years and he'll still be up there."
According to the poll, 26 percent of respondents said they are more likely to buy a product endorsed by Jordan. Tiger Woods was a distant second at 19 percent. Lance Armstrong was third at 18 percent. All three are part of Nike's stable of endorsers.
Jordan seemingly has a similar hold on the Chinese market, its retail and distribution channels now open after being under governmental control only two decades ago.
"Opening up business in certain areas is a door-to-door effort," Torng said. "But we have a very aggressive door expansion policy."
Reebok recently partnered with China-based Smart Shine Industries to help it speed through the distribution channels. Yao will return to China this summer, and Reebok plans to open themed stores there in the near future.
Adidas, too, has its foot in the door. Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, an adidas endorser, is in Shanghai for the shoe company's Superstar Camp, which attracts Asia's top 14- to 18-year-old players.
On Friday, Jordan will be in Hong Kong where he will be the judge of a slam-dunk contest -- barring another unwieldy crowd.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.email@example.com