NBA wants to turn Yao Ming admirers into full-fledged fans

Originally Published: April 6, 2004
Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Rick Chu was typical of many fans who packed the Oakland Arena recently to watch the Golden State Warriors host the Houston Rockets.

Sporting a red-and-gold Rockets jersey, Chu wasn't cheering for the home team. Like many Asian Americans who made up about one-third of the sellout crowd, Chu came to catch a glimpse of China's biggest sports star: Houston center Yao Ming.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really care who wins," said Chu, a 29-year-old software analyst from San Francisco, wearing Yao's No. 11 jersey. "I just want to see Yao play."

That phenomenon has become common since Yao's arrival last season. The 7-foot-6 All-Star center has drawn thousands of Asian American fans to their first NBA games, but turning Yao-maniacs into full-fledged fans hasn't been easy.

Many franchises are trying to leverage Yao's popularity to attract more Asian fans. This season, 18 teams have hosted "Asian-theme" nights centered on Rockets games, said Terry Lyons, the NBA's vice president of international public relations.

"We've had success getting Asian American fans to come to our games when they play the Rockets," said Brett Ballbach, senior director of marketing for the Seattle Supersonics. "Only time will tell if we're able to turn them into fans of our team."

The 23-year-old Shanghai native has become a cultural icon in Chinese communities throughout the United States, offering the perfect vehicle to market basketball to Asian Americans -- a fast-growing market coveted by advertisers because of its relatively high income level.

Yao has endorsement deals with McDonald's, Reebok, Pepsi, Visa and Apple Computer and has become one of world's the most recognized players.

"It's obvious that the NBA is aware of (the Asian American) market and its power," said Jeff Yang, CEO of Factor Inc., a New York-based marketing firm focused on Asian Americans.

NBA teams have done a good job tapping a new market for Yao's visits, using entertainment like Chinese acrobatics shows and dragon dances to help sell the sport.

But getting those fans to come back when Yao's not in town remains a hurdle.

"We came just because Yao Ming was playing," said John Yao, 52, of San Mateo, who brought his son to their first NBA game March 19 in Oakland. "We're very proud of him."

The Warriors and the NBA are looking for more fans like Tak Cheung. After attending his first NBA game last year when the Rockets came to Oakland, the 42-year-old Hong Kong native bought tickets to 15 Warriors games this season.

"I'm a Warriors fan, but every time Yao scores, I'll be cheering," Cheung said during Yao's last visit. "If Yao Ming was with the Warriors, they'd be sold out every night."

Yao became a celebrity when Houston made him the No. 1 draft pick in 2002. He's proven his skeptics wrong, making the All-Star team in his first two years and averaging 17.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season.

No team has benefited more from Yao's star power than the Rockets, giving the team a boost of about 3,500 fans per game from the year before his arrival.

The team attributes much of the increase to Asian Americans, who make up 5 percent of Houston's population. Before Yao's arrival, Asians comprised just 3 percent of attendees, but they made up 11 percent last season and are expected to at least match that this season, said Tim McDougal, the Rockets' vice president of marketing.

"He's had a huge impact on the franchise," McDougal said. "We've been trying to tap into that market for years."

The Rockets has launched an aggressive campaign to market Yao to the city's Chinese community. The team advertises games in Chinese-language newspapers, television and radio, and broadcasts a weekly Mandarin radio show that features an interview with Yao.

The Rockets have also hired Mandarin speakers in its marketing department, launched a Chinese-language Web site and started selling group tickets to Chinese community groups.

The Warriors have also been aggressive in reaching out to the San Francisco Bay area's Asian community, one of the country's largest.

To market its Rockets games, the team has advertised heavily in Chinese language newspapers -- World Journal and Singtao Daily -- and broadcast media, and started selling three-game ticket packages that include one Rockets' game.

"We're very happy that the Warriors recognize the importance of the Chinese market," said Julia Tung, Singtao Daily's director of marketing. "They can see that Yao Ming can really draw a lot of traffic for them."

Golden State -- which fills 16,000 of its 19,600 seats at a typical game -- has sold out all three of its Yao games so far and expects another sellout when the Rockets visit April 6. While less than 15 percent of the crowd at a typical Warriors game is Asian, Asians make up as much as 50 percent at a Yao game, said Warriors president Robert Rowell.

"Here in the Bay Area, we get to experience and have a strong understanding of the power of Yao Ming," Rowell said. "Our number one priority is to put together the best basketball team, but it would be great to have a Chinese player on our roster."

------

On the Net:

Golden State Warriors: http://www.nba.com/warriors/

Houston Rockets: http://www.nba.com/rockets/


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index