Chinese TV audience for first Yao vs. Yi game may far exceed Super Bowl
HOUSTON -- Patriots vs. Colts? That's nothing.
In China, Friday night's game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets is expected to draw TV ratings that would put even a Super Bowl to shame.
It's Yao Ming vs. Yi Jianlian, the nation's greatest player facing his highly touted rookie countryman for the first time.
"It's the two best basketball players in the country coming to play in the best basketball league in the world," said Wang Meng, a sports writer who covers the Rockets for Titan Sports, a Beijing-based newspaper. "It doesn't matter who wins. It's the best thing that can happen in China, because people will be excited either way."
The game, starting early Saturday morning in China, will air on 19 television stations, including CCTV-5, the country's government-run network. It also will be available on two Webcasts and on video-enabled, wireless phones.
The NBA also is throwing a viewing party for fans in Beijing.
Wang said the game is expected to draw more than 200 million viewers in China. By comparison, last week's New England-Indianapolis game in the NFL drew an average audience of about 34 million. Last year's Super Bowl drew an average of 93 million.
"The numbers are just extraordinary," said Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA's president of global marketing partnerships and international business operations. "It's very significant. It's showing how much the globalization of the league is on the rise."
Seems the only people not overly psyched about the game are the players themselves.
"You really have to ask fans," Yao said. "I'm playing on the court. I'm not really going to feel how they feel. I know they're excited, very excited."
The two may not even guard each other much, if at all -- the 7-foot-6 Yao matches up with Bucks center Andrew Bogut and the 6-11 Yi will likely draw one of the Rockets' forwards, either Chuck Hayes or Shane Battier.
"Just another game for me," Yi said.
Not for China.
The Rockets drafted Yao with the top overall pick in 2002. His first matchup with Shaquille O'Neal drew over 200 million viewers back home.
He's since developed into one of the game's top centers, a five-time All-Star who's increased his scoring average every season. He had 28 points and 13 rebounds against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
And now comes Yi, the No. 6 pick in the draft. The two played together in Athens and Yao sensed immediately that 6-11 Yi would be a star.
"The first time I saw him, in 2004, for Olympic training camp, I know one day he would play here," Yao said. "He has huge talent. Already, he's shown some part of it, in his first four games."
The two haven't kept in touch much since Yi arrived in Milwaukee. When they did speak, Yao didn't give him much advice on life in the NBA.
"Just try to work hard," Yi said Yao told him. "First season is going to be not easy."
Yao said Yi is going to have to learn on his own, like he did.
"He's going through it in a different place," Yao said. "I don't know much about Milwaukee, I can't tell him too much. I don't want to give him too many pressures, or the wrong messages. Different people get different experiences."
Yi was reportedly disappointed that he wasn't picked by a team in a city with a larger Asian population. He seems to be adjusting just fine, scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the Bucks' 78-72 win over Chicago last weekend.
They'll meet in Milwaukee on Feb. 2 and will team up in the Olympics in Beijing. Neither is thinking that far ahead.
"It's the NBA season," Yi said.
But they can't wait in China, where Wang thinks Friday's game will be long remembered as historic.
"When people talk about this, they will think about the game they watched where two Chinese players started in an NBA game," Wang said. "This will help Chinese basketball a lot, just like Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili watched Michael Jordan win the championship back in Argentina.
"Every kid who loves basketball has a basketball dream. For them right now, maybe some of them want to be like Kobe. Maybe some of them want to try to be LeBron James. Now, why not think about being like Yi? This will open their eyes. This is such a great thing."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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