At the Sonics vs. Rockets game in Seattle the other night, Huan Hsu of Seattle Weekly assigned himself a mission:
What is sort of surprising is that, according to the NBA, the best-selling jersey in China isn't Yao Ming's. In fact, Yao comes in 6th, behind Kobe (no. 1), AI, T-Mac, Dwyane Wade, and Lebron. Yao had the 3rd spot in 2006, but he's apparently fallen even more out of favor amongst his countrymen.
Last night, I set out to find a Chinese person wearing a Yao jersey at the game, so I could ask them why Chinese people don't buy Yao jerseys. It wasn't easy.
He got enough interesting answers that it is well worth reading Hsu's whole blog post. (It's PG-13 owing to one word.)
I imagine the answer to be that a lot of Chinese basketball fans are serious basketball fans. They're watching closely. While some might hand their hearts to Yao because he's from China, they won't let the cultural factors cloud their basketball judgment.
Serious Yao Ming fans watch the Rockets all season, right? You watch the Rockets all season, and then tell me which player you dream of being. I'm guessing it would be the one who dunks over people all the time, and makes shots from all over the floor. It's no coincidence that Tracy McGrady's jersey sells better, as do all of the NBA's great vitruosos who are so fun to watch.
In 2003, David Barboza wrote from China about Yao Ming Mania for The New York Times (Select):
Young people here, however, do not universally favor Yao. Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant are also popular.
Lu Zhihua, 25, was playing today wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey and Air Jordans. (He insisted that he owns all 18 styles in the Air Jordan collection.) His favorite player is Michael Jordan, but he admires Yao.
''Yao has the capability,'' he said. ''And if you have the capability, you should go to the N.B.A. Everyone knows the N.B.A. is the best.''
That's my feeling: when Yao Ming proves that he is the best in the NBA, when he's an MVP, when he's the most transcendant player on the floor, then he'll sell a lot more jerseys in China and everywhere else there are NBA fans. Until then? It's not like Yao's not feeling the love. He's still selling more jerseys in China than Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony, and Gilbert Arenas.
UPDATE: The Chinese edition of Forbes, for what it's worth, considers Yao Ming to be the biggest celebrity in all of China three years running. Thanks to Renjun Bao for the link.