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Saturday, November 10, 2007
Yi vs. Yao matchup draws estimated 100 to 200 million TV viewers in China

Associated Press

BEIJING -- The Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets game had a distinctly local flavor for NBA fans in China.

Among the estimated 100 to 200 million TV viewers in China were more than 400 who packed a Beijing bar at breakfast time Saturday to watch a live televised broadcast of Rockets star Yao Ming against Bucks' rookie Yi Jianlian in the Chinese players' first NBA matchup.

"We're here for those two Chinese," said Wu Disong, a 27-year-old designer watching the game on a large TV at the Goose and Duck pub. He and other fans ate an American-style breakfast while cheering on Yao and Yi at the NBA-sponsored event.

Millions of others watched at home. National broadcaster China Central Television carried it on its sports channel as did 13 other TV stations and three Web sites, according to the NBA's China subsidiary, NBA China.

"This is the biggest Chinese player rivalry in NBA history," sports writer Zhang Qiang wrote in a column on the Web site Sina.com. "This is a good thing for Chinese basketball as well as for the NBA."

The NBA declined to estimate the audience size, though Chinese sports commentators predicted it would be 100 million to 200 million.

Last season's Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears had about 93 million viewers in the United States.

Friday's night matchup and the attention it drew further cemented the NBA's popularity among the Chinese and enhanced the league's drive for a share of China's growing sports market. Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA's president for international business, this past week called the potential audience size "just extraordinary."

While the NBA has been popular in China for more than a decade, first Yao and now Yi's presence have boosted the sport.

At the Goose and Duck, Shen Xiaolei said he started watching the NBA in 2002 when Yao left the Shanghai Sharks for the Rockets. Now the 24-year-old telephone company worker said he can identify more than 250 NBA players and hosts a blog that features predictions of NBA games.

"I'm excited every time my prediction is close to the actual result," Shen said. He expected Yi to give a good performance but that the Rockets would win. In the end, the Rockets won 104-88. Yi had 19 points and nine rebounds, while Yao had 28 points, 10 rebounds and three assists.

Though Yi drew plenty of cheers, the Rockets were clearly the favorite, with the crowd at the Goose and Duck whooping and applauding every time they scored.

"After all, we've watched Rockets games for longer time so we have deeper affection for the Rockets," college student Cathy Cheng said.

Beyond the fun and market potential, the emergence of two Chinese stars in a sport is seen as another sign of China's growing influence worldwide.

"First the economy, now sports," said Li Weizhan, a 66-year-old retiree who used to work at a sporting goods retailer.

Liu Jing brought her 4-year-old son, hoping that the Yao-Yi matchup would inspire a love of basketball in him.

"Chinese power is emerging in the NBA," wrote Zhang, the sports columnist. "There's no loser in this match. It's glory for Yao and Yi and for Chinese basketball."