- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Chinese basketball star Yao Ming might soon become a top NBA draft choice and sign a lucrative contract, but the deal will be subject to the "Yao Rule," which mandates Chinese athletes who compete abroad must surrender a majority of their income to various institutions.

This government policy requiring athletes to give back to China was issued in 1996 and was implemented in part because Zheng Haixa, the Chinese women's basketball star who performed well at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, was planning to make the jump to the WNBA.

Why was this fee policy revived? The question is valid considering these restrictions were not imposed on either Wang Zhizhi or Mengke Baterre, the two Chinese basketball stars currently in the NBA.

According to Chinese authorities, the high fees the 7-foot-5 Yao will have to pay are warranted. In a recent conversation, Li Yao Min, assistant to the general manager of the Shanghai Sharks, helped explain the fee issue. The short answer is money.

"For Yao Ming personally, it was better for him to have left three years ago because he would have been playing in the NBA. There is no question of this," said Li.

Three years ago, Yao had a chance to leave the Sharks. A deal was struck where he would give 33 percent of his earnings to the Chinese authorities for a period of three years. As has been widely reported, Terry Rhoads of Nike China and American sports agent Bill Duffy advised Yao to forgo the opportunity and wait for better terms and conditions.

"Yao Ming now feels that the contract three years ago was reasonable and regrets that he didn't take it," Li said. "As far as we know, the government will take much more under the new stipulation."

Under the new rules, Yao will have to pay out 50 percent of his earnings to Chinese authorities, in addition to an untold amount to the Sharks.

Three years ago, Yao averaged 20 points a game in 12 games and would soon develop into the best player in the Chinese Basketball Association. Basketball would become the number one participant sport in China.

This year Yao led the Sharks to the Chinese championship, and his statistics were nothing short of dominant: He averaged 32.4 points, shooting 72.1 percent from the floor. During the playoffs, Yao upped his performance, averaging 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds. In the opening game of the championship, Yao shot an unfathomable 21-for-21 from the floor and finished with 49 points.

"For the Sharks, we are fortunate to have had him play for us over the past three years. We were able to win a championship this year. He is our best player and obviously a strong reason why we won the championship," Li said. "So the Shanghai Sharks need compensation to let him go, and some compensation from the U.S. club that takes him as well."

Xin Lanchong, director of the Chinese Basketball Association, explains the Chinese authorities' insistence on the fees: "Our nation cultivated Yao Ming, and Yao Ming should give up something for his country."

Yao is a product of the Chinese athletic program, as are his parents. To be sure, the Chinese government is not running a charity for professional sports leagues in the United States.

The Chinese authorities' demands are not just a product of a sense of nationalism. The cold, hard facts of business are driving these demands. The Chinese Basketball Association wants 30 percent of Yao's earnings because the Association will be the biggest loser when Yao leaves China.

The Chinese league makes its income from sponsorship. These sponsors have already suggested that they will not be interested in the league when marquee Chinese players are lost to the NBA. With Wang, Mengke and Yao in the NBA the Chinese league will have lost its star appeal. Inevitably, sponsorship revenues will decline.

Worth considering is the fact that sponsorship monies are divided between all 13 teams. As it stands, reports indicate that the Chinese clubs are losing money. Arguably then, the clubs want Yao to stay in China. Until the league develops more stars, the league and its teams will suffer. Based on facts alone then, it is easy to understand the Chinese league's insistence on 30 percent of Yao's earnings.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Many of the same arguments were made when Michael Jordan retired from the NBA. Indeed, many pundits would argue that if it weren't for Jordan, the NBA would not be where it is today. Ratings dropped dramatically when Jordan left to play baseball, and presumably the same fate will plague the Chinese.

Yao might not be as good a player as people think, and he might not be as valuable a marketing commodity as the sponsorship companies think. But all the hype surrounding Yao over the past three years has made it difficult to believe anything else.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown has said, "In four years, he could be one of the best players in the world."

Bill Walton, the former NBA Hall of Famer for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Boston Celtics, might have done the most disservice to Yao. While his intentions were no doubt charitable, Walton promoted Yao like no other basketball commentator in the United States.

He once wrote, "Simply put, the 20-year-old (he is now 21) Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played. As I watched his crisp and imaginative passes, I felt the energy surge when he'd whip an outlet to launch a fast break and noted his decision-making and great court demeanor. I knew I was peering into the future.

He also said, "He's ready right now, and I can't imagine him not being the No. 1 pick. Yao's smooth, graceful. He's a finesse player."

Commenting on Yao joining the NBA, the head of the NBA players association, Billy Hunter, has said: "It's a bonanza for the league."

In an interview with ESPN's Cal Fussman, agent Bill Duffy said, "You get the feeling that if all goes well, there's no way to fathom Yao's marketing potential."

Duffy may have let the biggest cat out of the bag when he told USA Today, "We're doing a lot more than just saying we can take these players to the NBA. We can bring as much as $1 billion in revenues."

Last year, Duffy told ESPN's Darren Rovell, "Half of the GMs have never seen Yao play at all and only three guys have seen him play in Shanghai. Every one is saying he would have definitely have been the No. 1 pick and I've played a part in creating that hype."

Translated into a language understood by all, the basketball establishment in America was saying "big money." But in their haste to cash in, they did not consider the effect of the publicity in China. The hype machine spun out of control and soon the Chinese believed the hype. And why not? If Yao is as good and as valuable as the experts think, they would be negligent in their fiduciary responsibility were they not to get as much as they can.

Whether a product of hype or not, Yao's value is so high that he may never leave China. One can only guess the regret Yao must feel about not leaving the Sharks when he had the chance.

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