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Thursday, February 6
 
All-Star center Yao quenches thirst for Gatorade

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

Be like Yao? Don't laugh. It could become a catchy jingle some day.

Yao Ming
Yao Ming's first ad, called 'Playmates,' will debut this spring and bring to life a kid's ultimate sports fantasy.
Sports drink maker Gatorade announced on Thursday its signing of Yao Ming. The Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center, who will start his first All-Star Game on Sunday, could become the brand's most important athlete endorser since Michael Jordan became Gatorade's first athlete spokesperson in 1991.

The multiyear deal will consist of a marketing campaign in both the United States and China, said Tom Fox, vice president of sports marketing for Gatorade.

"It's amazing how he only recently came to this country and he is already a part of Americana," Fox said. "We feel he has really caught on well with the fans."

This is especially important since Gatorade pulled out of the Chinese market two years ago when Pepsi started managing the brand.

Since arriving in the United States in October, Yao has signed five endorsement deals and starred in commercials for Visa and Apple -- both of which signed him to one-year national deals. In a Gatorade commercial filmed on Thursday, Yao plays basketball with a kid in the neighborhood whose other playing partners include New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

"Gatorade has a great sports marketing team," said Bill Sanders, director of marketing for BDA sports management, which is part of Team Yao. "They have a tremendous track record of innovative and cutting-edge advertising, including their 'Be Like Mike' campaign."

With this deal, Yao adds yet another powerful name to his portfolio.

"With Visa, Nike and Gatorade we are aligning Yao with the best companies in the world," said Sanders.

Team Yao is fielding at least five proposals a week from companies seeking Yao to endorse their products, Sanders said. Yao's Nike deal, carried over from his Chinese playing days with the Shanghai Sharks, expires at the end of this season. He also has deals with the Chinese cell phone company China Unicom and Sorrent, a company that will produce a Yao Ming video game for cell phones.

Sanders said that Team Yao is concluding negotiations with two Web site companies -- one in China and one in the United States -- that will host his official Web sites.

Although Gatorade dominates the sports drink category with over 80 percent of the market share and has been the official drink of the NBA, MLB and the NFL for decades, Fox said "it's always important to link certain athletes to our brand."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.





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