With the news Friday that Yao Ming has decided to retire, the NBA lost a giant whose stature made him a force on the court and an ambassador for the spread of basketball throughout Asia.
His impact on the floor and in the record books was muted by injury, but Yao’s influence on the globalization of basketball will be felt for years, if not decades.
Yao, 30, endured years of pain and injuries to his feet and lower legs and most recently could not overcome a stress fracture in his left foot that caused him to miss all but five games in the 2010-11 season. The 7-foot-6 center has yet to file official retirement paperwork with the NBA office, but that would be a mere formality after Yahoo! Sports reported Friday that Yao has informed the Rockets, league office, and NBA China in the past 48 hours of his intention to retire.
It was the presence of Yao, along with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that lifted the NBA to new heights of popularity and revenue-generation in China during the past decade. The league launched NBA China in 2008, and Sports Business Journal has estimated that between $150 million and $170 million of the NBA’s annual revenues are generated in Yao’s native land.
Some of the NBA’s biggest America-born stars have endorsement and charitable ventures linked to China, such Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and the recently retired Shaquille O’Neal. Several of Yao’s teammates with the Rockets, including Luis Scola and Shane Battier, also have benefited. The top 10 best-selling NBA jerseys in China are all worn by American-born players, led by Bryant, who has owned the top spot for four straight years.
Bryant, received in China like a rock star during the Beijing Games, has made several promotional trips to China for endorsement work with Nike and has created the Kobe Bryant China Foundation to raise money and awareness for education and health programs. If Bryant provided the momentum for basketball’s robust commerce in China, it was Yao who lit the flame.
Yao retires as a once-dominant force whose impact on the court was derailed by injuries that cost him 170 regular season games over the course of his career. His best season was 2006-07, when he averaged 25 points, 9.4 rebounds and shot 52 percent from the field. For his career, Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds, and in an aberration for a player his size, shot .833 from the foul line.
It is the end of a career, but also a new beginning – the start of an era with only one dominant center left in the game, Dwight Howard, and potentially billions of dollars in new marketing opportunities for the NBA in China and beyond. Yao started it all.