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Going Global: Jeremy Lin and the NBA

Linsanity has become a global phenomena, but the NBA’s popularity throughout Asia is nothing new.

by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL

In 2010, I visited Taiwan, speaking to university students about Yao Ming and then-college player Jeremy Lin. Even though Lin is Taiwanese American, few students knew who he was—most knew about Yao, some just wanted to talk about Beyoncé and Jay-Z. In Taiwan today, it’s safe to think that—like Kobe Bryant—most know who Jeremy Lin is now.

Unsurprisingly, one of the emergent Linsanity narratives has been that he is providing a bridge to untapped markets, whether Asian-American communities or those throughout Asia. Constructing Asian-American fans and those from throughout Asia (with little differentiation across various countries) as otherwise disinterested in basketball, the narrative replicates stereotypes while simultaneously erasing the immense popularity of basketball within the Asian Diaspora.

Jeremy Lin has been credited with either cultivating or revitalizing interest in basketball throughout Asia. According to Matt Brooks, “But in the post-Yao Ming NBA, Lin just might be the player to further the League’s growth in Asia, while continuing to inspire athletes to break the mold.”

Similarly, an Associated Press story credits Lin with filling the void left by Yao Ming: “Jeremy Lin and Ricky Rubio aren’t just responsible for reviving their dormant franchises. They also are giving the NBA two fresh young faces to market internationally. As the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Lin is re-opening doors in Asia that were feared to be closing in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement. He’s led the New York Knicks to five straight victories and has become an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden.”

While clearly Lin has captured the national and international imagination, the narrative that there weren’t NBA fans throughout the Diaspora lacks any factual basis. And the argument that the NBA did not exist in Asia prior to Yao Ming or that fans in China or Japan, Thailand or the Philippines or Taiwan were fans of Yao and not the NBA reinforces stereotypes while erasing the history of the NBA globally. Lin’s own story, whose father became immensely passionate about the NBA after watching games while still living in Taiwan, is a testament to the globalization of basketball.

NBA Commissioner David Stern once described “the opportunity for basketball and the NBA in China” as “simply extraordinary.” The media narrative around Jeremy Lin has advanced this argument, yet reducing the NBA’s popularity in Taiwan, China, and throughout Asia to ethnic or national solidarity is simplistic. Basketball has been immensely popular throughout Asia for many years.

According to a 2007 study, 89 percent of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 54 were “aware of the NBA,” with 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 describing themselves as fans. With 1.4 billion viewers watching NBA games during the 2008 season (up through April 30) on one of the 51 broadcast outlets in China, and 25 million Chinese visiting NBA.com/China each month, basketball and the NBA are cultural phenomena within China.

And while the immense fanfare directed at NBA stars is partially a result of the emergence of Yao Ming within the NBA, American NBA players have in recent years generated equal, if not more, popularity. For example, Yao Ming, whose jersey ranked as the sixth most popular in 2007, had dropped into 10th by 2008 even behind the likes of Gilbert Arenas. As of 2010, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had the two most popular jerseys in China, with Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant also feeling the love. The allure of the NBA, and the immense excitement that the League generates did not begin and end with Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin.

The popularity of the NBA and its players was clearly on full display during the 2008 Summer Olympics. While attending a US Women’s basketball game, Bryant attempted to move through the crowd to his seat, only to find himself amid a sea of cheering fans. The presence of Bryant, who has experienced ample criticism and media derision during the course of his career within the United States, receiving star-studded adoration assumed to be reserved for Chinese athletes, was a testament to the popularity of the NBA and its (African) American basketball stars in China.

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Yao Ming’s Exit: Globalization and All Its Possibilities

  MY LATEST BLOG POST FOR NEW BLACK MAN

  

Yao Ming’s Exit: Globalization and All Its Possibilities  | Special to NewBlackMan
   Yao Ming is reportedly retiring from the NBA.  A player of immense talent and potential, his career for some will be a disappointment.  While debating his on-the-court successes, whether or not he is a hall-of-famer, and the large basketball significance are interesting, I think his retirement should elicit thought and reflection about the globalization of the NBA.  His importance to the game, in global sports marketing, and in terms of larger social forces transcend the game and that has always been the case.  In 2003, when Yao’s statistics were pedestrian at best, I wrote in Colorlines about the larger significance of his arrival to the NBA.
   The star power of Yao Ming is not the result of his extraordinary stats for the Houston Rockets. He averages a respectable 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The flurry of magazine covers, billboards, and television commercials featuring Yao reflect the desires of American and Chinese companies to cash in on Yao’s popularity. Beyond the efforts to sell basketball to more than 2 billion Chinese nationals, the NBA hopes to capitalize on the sudden explosion in ticket sales to the Asian American market. Asian Americans buying group packages for Rockets games represent 11 percent of the buying public, 10 percent more than last year. In cities across America, Yao attracts fans to the Rockets’ away games to such an extent that a number of stadiums, in places like Detroit, Boston, and Oakland, have offered special “Asian American nights.” When the Rockets played the Golden State Warriors this spring, the Oakland arena announced parts of the game in Mandarin. Rockets’ coach Rudy Tomjanovich frequently boasts of Yao ‘s importance in bridging cultural and political gaps. In other words, Yao is presumably schooling America about Chinese culture and history.
    Since 2003, Yao Ming’s economic, social, and cultural importance has increased tenfold.  According to a 2007 study, 89 percent of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 54 were “aware of the NBA,” with 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 describing themselves as fans.  More recent numbers show a game increasing in popularity, despite Yao’s diminished presence.  On average, NBA games (despite being aired early in the morning) deliver 558,100 viewers; NBA.com/China generates roughly 12 million hits per day. A two billion dollar market, China has proven to be immensely important to the NBA’s global expansion and its overall financial success.