In the National Basketball Association, Yao Ming is a strong player in a star-studded league. Averaging 19 points per game during his six-year career with Houston, the Chinese center is often overshadowed by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and others, who are flashier on and off the court.
But as the summer Olympics open in Beijing, among thousands of athletes from around the world, Yao is the biggest star on his home stage of China. And multinational companies who are paying the 7-foot-6-inch, 310-pound behemoth to endorse their products are anticipating a windfall from his immense popularity.
Sponsors’ deals with Yao extend far past the Olympics, to be sure, but the 17-day window during the Games could provide an out-of-scale payoff, given Yao’s popularity in the world’s largest market of consumers. The 27-year-old — who earns an estimated $15 million a year from endorsements — has struck pacts with more than half a dozen companies, who are all paying at least $1 million apiece for the big man’s endorsement.
Take Coca-Cola. Yao’s image is splashed on Coke cans in China. He will be featured in two Coke commercials during the Games, one global and one airing solely in China. Said Kevin Tressler, director of sports and entertainment for The Coca-Cola Company, of the campaign: “It’s more about what Yao stands for as a person, how he inspires people. It’s not so much about winning and losing.”
Among Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa and others, perhaps no company has a bigger bet on Yao than Reebok. The shoe outfit — which lured Yao from Nike five years ago and handed him a contract through 2013 worth a reported $100 million — recently released a Yao Ming sneaker (graced with fire-breathing dragons) as it tries to compete in what’s already a billion-dollar market. Billboards, commercials and even a larger-than-life statue of Yao are part of the marketing blitz for the brand, which is owned by Adidas AG.
The frenzy has ensued despite the fact that, back in February, it looked like Yao may not even play in Beijing. An injury to his size-18 left foot knocked him out for the last half of the NBA season. It highlighted the risks of basing a campaign around one athlete; even in non-contact sports such as golf a player can be knocked out by injury (just ask Tiger Woods), lessening his visibility.
Some of Yao’s backers tried to turn the stress fracture into a plus. According to the Boston Globe, “after Yao's injury, Reebok promoted its website as a place for fans to leave get-well wishes, turning an unexpected snag into marketing gold.”
Recently, reports on Yao’s recovery have been reassuring. In July, he scored 21 points in a China exhibition win over Angola. Of course, his already-beloved image in China — he founded the Yao Ming Foundation there after this year’s devastating earthquake and seeded it with a $2 million donation — could go through the stratosphere if he overcomes the foot injury to lead China to a few victories. An upset in the opener Aug. 10 against the United States — a team featuring all those players who overshadow him back in NBA land — would transform Yao into a legend among the 1.3 billion Chinese.
But just having Yao on the floor (and on television in homes of hundreds of millions in China and worldwide) will be enough for the companies which sponsor him.
”It matters how far China goes, but he’s bigger than that,” said David Carter, head of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. ”He’s one of a handful of athletes we look at in terms of how to build a global brand. He’s such a gentle giant and so unassuming despite his size. He’s a compelling figure. “
Aside from his Fortune 500 supporters, Yao’s actions will be closely watched by the NBA, which is staking an increasingly big claim in China. Back in January, the league formed NBA China to conduct the league’s businesses there. Five firms, including league cable partner ESPN, agreed to invest more than $250 million in the venture. Scores of NBA games appear annually on CCTV, whose nearly 700 million viewers per day is the biggest audience in the world.
On Friday, Yao is likely to carry the Chinese flag into Beijing National Stadium, as he did in Athens four years ago. Though he’ll officially represent his home country, the larger-than-life figure will also be carrying the banner of capitalism in a Communist land. The hopes of millions (meaning dollars) rest on his oversized shoulders.