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Chinese basketball fans: 'I love this game'

NBA star Yao Ming has a huge following in China, which could mean major money for the league and it’s partners looking to enter the vast marketplace. By DarrenRovell
/ Source: CNBC

A team of NBA stars making up Team USA blew out a Yao-Ming-less Chinese national team 119-73 on Monday night in Guangzhou, China. Despite the loss, the Chinese are loving basketball, which could mean major money for the NBA and it’s league partners looking to enter the vast marketplace.

How do you open China’s door? Marketers of every large company are asking that question. But, those associated with a big, orange, round ball already have the key. With 1.3 billion people, China is the emerging market that many multi-national companies are salivating to embrace. And while it’s not exactly getting the foot in the door, sports marketers are discovering that using basketball certainly helps.

“When you go to China and you drive around and you see basketball courts everywhere, they don’t play five on five, they’ll play 15 on 15, they’ll get as many kids on the court as they can," said Team Yao’s marketing agent, Bill Sanders.

Interest in basketball has always been high in China, but the sport reached a fever pitch when native Yao Ming was selected as the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft.

When Yao is around Chinese people, the reaction is completely different. It reminds me of the old clips I used to see of the Beatles or Elvis. It’s on that level where these people are so thrilled to see them they have trouble containing themselves," said Sanders.

With an estimated three hundred million people playing basketball in China, the NBA is riding the wave. Twenty percent of all traffic to comes from China and they signed eight new China marketing partners last year – including a deal with Haier, one of China’s largest appliance manufacturers.

“As you get closer to the Olympics, there will be a huge crescendo of all sports marketing, but what the NBA can offer is real stars that are identifiable to a Chinese audience," said China Inc. author, Ted Fishman.

Despite Yao’s popularity, the league’s latest release of Jersey sales shocked many. Yao was the third most popular Jersey, his Houston Rockets teammate Tracy McGrady, in the top spot.

“He’s go the talent, but he’s also go the laid back personality which the Chinese sort of relate to. They call him ‘Old Sleepy Eyes’," said Lawrence Norman, VP of Global Basketball for Adidas.

Using McGrady, Addidas has taken China by storm, where store openings are a daily occurrence.

“We have 2,000, but we are opening two everyday and this is going to continue all the way through the Olympics and probably beyond. When you see all the Starbucks opening here, it’s kind of similar to that. They’re just down the street from each other, but Adidas is such a strong brand, we can do this," said Norman.

Marketers say that China’s growth potential is vast, through understanding the culture, and the healthy counterfeiting business is a must for those hoping to cash in.

“China is littered with fake products. There is no getting around it, but if a fraction of the market buys legitimate products, it’s still a big number," said Fishman.