- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Yao Ming has not yet mastered English. The 7-foot-5 basketball star from China is, however, quickly mastering something else that is very American capitalism.
Advertisers see in Yao, the first Chinese to become a star in the NBA, much more than a fresh face. They see an engaging young star with an old-school, flat-top haircut and a polite, low-key demeanor that is a refreshing contrast to the tattooed, in-your-face personas of so many athletes. They see an athlete who, if he delivers on court, is primed to become one of the most popular and dominant endorsers in sports.
And they see in Yao a means to gain entry into the large, untapped market of China.
"You look at everything he has and represents his size and skill, that pathway into the Chinese market, his maturity and personality and the question to us was more 'why aren't we working with Yao Ming already?' rather than 'why should we?'" said Isaac Babbs, president of Sorrent Inc., a California-based producer of video games for wireless phones whose company was the first to enlist Yao as an endorser after he joined the NBA.
In just three months, the rookie center with the Houston Rockets has captivated fans around the globe, earned a starting spot in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game and impressed coaches and players with his skill and long-term potential.
The corporate world has been equally impressed.
Within the past month, Yao has made a spate of ads with corporate heavyweights such as Visa and Apple and is poised to strike more marketing deals soon. A seven-figure deal with PepsiCo to be announced next week will pair Yao with the beverage giant in an extensive, global marketing effort largely centered around corporate subsidiary Gatorade.
Yao's global endorsement take is expected to surpass $10million in 2003. He would remain well behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, the titans of sports endorsers, should he reach that plateau. But he would be part of a luminary-filled second tier that includes Venus Williams, Arnold Palmer, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Jeff Gordon.
When Yao arrived in Houston last summer, the media attention, curiosity factor and devoted fan base back home already were in place. So, too, were the hopes of the NBA and its sponsors, eager to broaden their international exposure, and a half-dozen Chinese broadcast outlets looking to carry Yao's games.
What many didn't count on, however, was Yao's engaging personality and nuanced nature. The soft-spoken Yao is technologically savvy, carefully studies the mannerisms and lifestyles of his new peers and, at just 22, has a honed ear and eye for what is popular, trendy and humorous.
His own Web site, www.yaoming.net, is about to start operation, and Yao quickly absorbs anything related to computers, video games and cell phones.
"I prefer the ads [I do] to be creative and fresh," Yao said. "Hopefully, the products I endorse are high-tech and friendly."
Said Yao agent Bill Duffy, who represents more than two dozen NBA players: "He's about as clairvoyant as any athlete I've been around. He certainly has one of the highest IQs of any athlete I've ever known. He's very, very aware. Yao understands fully everything that's going on around him, all the attention, and better yet, he embraces it.
Not all of Yao's growing economic largess will reach his pocket. He must send his old team, the Shanghai Sharks, as much as $8million from his four-year, $18million contract with the Rockets and a total of $15million if he stays in the NBA 12 years. The sum was required before the Sharks would release Yao to the NBA. The government-run Chinese Basketball Association also gets 5 percent of Yao's Rockets salary.
Yao's endorsement money remains ungarnished to date. But between the responsibilities to China and taxes, Yao will in the short term see far less than half of what he actually earns.
"He is in compliance with the agreements," Duffy said. "He is pursuing his dream, obviously, but he is very patriotic. He wants to see his country and his old team do well."
Yao's greater payday will arrive after his current Rockets deal expires, when he is freed from the NBA's tight restrictions on rookie contracts. If he maintains or improves upon his current level of performance, an annual salary exceeding $15million is likely.
Because he is not a conventional athlete, even among the NBA's growing foreign contingent, Yao has not been handled conventionally. Distant cousin and Chinese agent Erik Zhang enlisted the help of Duffy's California-based sports agency, as well as the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Team Yao, as it is now called, drafted an endorsement and career plan based in part on a detailed market analysis conducted by University of Chicago students.
Predictably, that market research suggested Yao should gravitate to solid, stable companies selling products to young people in urban markets. But Yao's handlers have avoided a quick money grab and taken a decidedly long-term view.
"People relate to Yao and find him very genuine," Duffy said. "So the idea is to be very careful, very methodic and seek out companies where there is a genuine link with the product."
Besides the pending Gatorade deal, Team Yao will ease up on the ads until after the Rockets complete their season. After that, however, future ads will include more speaking parts for Yao. To date, Yao's only speaking parts have involved his name.
"This is a good thing. As he gets more comfortable with the language, he can and will do more with it," Duffy said. "It can evolve."
For all of Yao's immediate success, however, the center has struggled in dramatically boosting the Rockets' attendance both home and away. The Rockets have improved their once-meager road draw to an average of 16,761, a modest 12th best in the NBA. But their average home attendance of 13,344 remains the league's third worst.
"That has really puzzled me," said Bob Williams, president of a Chicago-based company that pairs celebrities and athletes with companies for endorsements. "With all this hype and the growing Asian population around the country, you would think the numbers would be higher. But it's still too early on a certain level. We simply don't know yet whether this level of performance is going to continue over the long haul. There's still some novelty effect going on."

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