Why Yao Ming's marketing impact is still felt today

Yao Ming and Shane Battier share a laugh in 2007. (Getty)
Yao Ming and Shane Battier share a laugh in 2007. (Getty)

With NBA player shoe deals set to expire Sept. 30, there are several key players who will be signing new deals for the upcoming season.

Thanks almost entirely to newly enshrined Hall of Famer Yao Ming, the shoe deal and marketing landscape for NBA players has taken on a more global scale in the last decade. After entering the league as the Houston Rockets’ No. 1 overall pick in 2002, the impact has been immense in Yao’s native China, where more than 300 million people now play basketball, according to the NBA.

That impact was seen in his growing global profile of endorsement deals and commercials at the time, and he caused an ongoing ripple effect for the generation of players who followed. Before then, players negotiated with less than a handful of brands of varying relevance. Now, Yao’s influence throughout China has created a surging fanbase, sparking four prominent Chinese footwear brands – Peak, Anta, Li-Ning and 361 – to sign NBA players as key endorsers.

As Yao was entering the league, it was common for basketball fans in China to have two NBA games aired each week. One marquee Saturday matchup would be shown live, and on Sundays a key game from earlier in the week would be shown. That all changed after Yao’s arrival, with the league seeking out more network partners to air more games. With that added visibility and the rising audience of Chinese viewers, the overseas marketing opportunities for players spiked.

One player that perhaps benefited more than anyone else from basketball’s rising popularity in China was Shane Battier, a Rockets teammate of Yao’s. Battier was a highly accomplished player in his own right. The former Duke All-American is still the only player to have ever been named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and the Naismith College Player of the Year. As he transitioned to the NBA, he became known as a team player and good defender who facilitated the offense and hit open shots.

Yao obviously caught Battier’s attention from the start. “A 7-6 guy who had amazing touch and was [an 83] percent free-throw shooter. He had all the skills and was really intriguing,” Battier told The Vertical.

Yao had been on Battier’s radar since the early 2000s, when there were rumors that the center was considering entering the 2001 NBA draft. “That would’ve meant I would be taking a pay cut right off the bat because my draft slot would’ve been lower,” Battier joked.

A 2006 draft-day trade sent Battier from Memphis to Houston, where he instantly saw himself joining a contender. “I was really excited when I went to Houston,” he said. “You can’t win in the NBA without Hall of Famers and first-team All-NBA players. We knew we had two of those with Tracy [McGrady] and Yao.”

Before Battier put on a Rockets uniform for a regular-season game, the endorsement offers started flying in – an entirely new experience for a role player largely unseen in stateside marketing campaigns.

The reason was simple: Battier would soon be starting alongside Yao Ming, and a global audience of 36 million viewers would be watching NBA games in China across more than 50 networks and television stations.

Battier and his teammates benefited simply from being on Yao’s team. (Getty)
Battier and his teammates benefited simply from being on Yao’s team. (Getty)

Before the 2006 FIBA World Championship with Team USA that summer in Japan, Battier received a call from his agent. There was a mammoth shoe deal offer from Peak, offering a newfound global audience and exponentially more money than the stateside brands.

“Peak wanted me to be their international spokesperson, the first guy in the NBA to wear their shoes,” Battier said. “I had just entered the free-agent market on my shoe contract after wearing adidas for a year. I said, ‘I’ll try it out. I’ll see what they’re about.’ ”

While the prevailing thought among consumers and players was that Chinese companies made cheap shoes, Battier didn’t find that to be the case. After all, Nike, adidas and several of the world’s biggest footwear companies also manufacture their shoes in China, often in factories adjacent to the Chinese brands. “They sent me a pair, and I practiced with them in the USA Basketball practices, and they checked out,” Battier said.

Battier agreed to become Peak’s first NBA endorser, and he and his wife headed to Beijing for a promotional tour. “It didn’t matter what the contract was for,” Battier said. “To be able to go spend a week in China and have my own shoe named after me, that’s something you dream about as a little kid.”

Battier actively engaged with Chinese fans during his annual summer tours throughout the region and raised his profile by making appearances on Chinese variety and talk shows. “Walking into a mall and seeing 5,000 to 6,000 people just happy to see an NBA player, those are things that I’ll never forget,” Battier said.

At that time, Damon Jones and Shaquille O’Neal had shoe deals with Chinese brand Li-Ning. Now, 10 years later, 23 players wore a Chinese brand’s sneakers last season, including stars Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and Tony Parker, and backup players Beno Udrih and Chase Budinger.

Several of the last decade’s most visible endorsers for Chinese brands all had one common trait: They were Houston Rockets. Carl Landry, Ron Artest, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons signed above-market endorsement deals with Chinese brands, some even after Yao had retired in 2011. In Battier’s case, Peak became an official partner of the NBA, and every game that was aired in China went to commercial break with a Peak Battier ad.

“It’s pretty funny. My friends that played in the CBA [Chinese Basketball Association] over there would always tell me, ‘You know, I’m so sick of seeing you on television over here. I change the channel now,’ ” Battier said. “It’s something I still laugh at today, and I joke with my friends that I’m way more famous in China than I am in America, and that’s OK by me.”

The commercials featuring Battier were decidedly different from the superhero-modeled ads of U.S. brands. Battier’s attributes of teamwork and his mental approach to the game were often highlighted, helping to inspire a new generation of players in China that were just beginning to play the game. The tagline – “I can play” – was simple to grasp, as young players were still in the early stages of improving their skills. “They always said, ‘We respect you, Shane, because you always talk about family, you talk about education, hard work and teammates.’ Those are quintessential Chinese values and really important,” Battier said. “Even though I wasn’t a high flier and I didn’t have the highlight film on the basketball court, what I represented off the basketball court really resonated with a lot of folks over there.”

They were traits also shared by Yao. “He was humble and appreciative of his opportunity,” Battier said. “He frankly might be the most famous and recognizable person on earth, in terms of sheer numbers, but you’d never know that. He’s a very kind person, and a very special person.”

It’s that complete package that altered the marketing landscape and helped other NBA stars benefit.

“Yao built the bridge for all of us,” Kobe Bryant said after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Wade has a 10-year deal with Li-Ning that pays him more than $8 million annually. With his Rockets association being a major factor, James Harden has an incentive-laden 13-year deal with adidas that could pay him as much as $200 million. Even though his minutes on the court have dwindled, Garnett still earns over $3 million annually from Anta, which he signed with in 2010.

Though he’s been retired for five years now, Yao is still heavily involved with the game. He owns the CBA’s Shanghai Sharks and is looking to get even more involved in the league’s operations as the Chinese government aims to ease its control over the association. “The growth of Chinese basketball has really been amazing, and it’s really become the national sport of China,” Battier said. “Yao knows that he can take Chinese basketball to the next level.”

For players from all around the globe who have enjoyed a career in the NBA, the Chinese landscape has now become an essential marketing component. Battier says Yao simply possessed the perfect combination of skills, demeanor and approach as the league was looking for an international star to help its growth throughout Asia.

“I don’t think you can find a better guy than Yao anywhere,” Battier said. “He’s just a tremendous teammate who always thought about his teammates. He always tended to give to the needs of his teammates, and for a superstar, that’s an amazing trait.”

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