M Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming

Agile Big Man:
The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
Thomas Oates and Judy Polumbaum1
ichael Jordan’s final retirement from basketball not only left a
vacuum in the pantheon of athletic superstardom, it also
accelerated the search for alternative sports icons adaptable to the
needs of transnational marketing. The search for Jordan’s successor, after
brief flirtations with a few individuals in the suave Jordan mold who failed to
reach his level of success on the court, produced a campaign revolving around
younger African-American players with a more raucous bad-boy image,
associated with hip hop and ghetto playground “streetball.”
An important exception to the streetball strategy was Kobe Bryant, the
superstar guard who helped centre Shaquille O’Neal lead the Los Angeles
Lakers to three consecutive championships in the National Basketball
Association (NBA), the US professional league.Bryant, one of the first NBA
players to go directly from high school to the pros, was no errant ghetto
youth: coming from a suburban, middle-class background, he was viewed as
mature and respectful, and his bright, handsome, wealthy image earned
him generous sponsorships for all-American products ranging from Sprite
to McDonald’s.
The sexual assault charges filed against him in the summer of 2003, soon
after he’d signed a five-year, US$45 million contract with Nike, changed all
that. His image was tarnished, and at least for the time being, Bryant has
been sidelined as a marketing vehicle. Although his agreement with CocaCola runs through 2005, the company has stopped running the Sprite ads
featuring him, and in January 2004, McDonald’s announced that its
sponsorship deal with Bryant would not be renewed.
A month later, McDonald’s signed a multi-year deal with a player who was
neither white nor black, nor even American: the mainland Chinese import
Yao Ming. “Yao has international appeal and also represents the character
of our brand,” explained McDonald’s global marketing chief. “He’s youthful,
dynamic and has a sense of humour. He’s also very caring.”2
As this substitution highlights, intriguing new possibilities have emerged
in the person of this non-American NBA player. As the Great Chinese Hope,
The authors are grateful to the three anonymous reviewers for their inspired suggestions.
“McDonald’s goes supersize with Yao,” USA Today, 13 February 2004, 23C.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
Yao Ming represents an entirely new approach to marketing pro sports and
consumer products—indeed, he is the pioneer for a novel technique that
configures appropriate individuals as cosmopolitan, hip and industrious.
Global itinerants in professional soccer, baseball, basketball, ice hockey,
track and field and other sports are nothing new, but the case of Yao Ming,
who arrived to play in the United States in 2002 at age 21 as the NBA’s top
recruit that year, takes boundary-crossing in sports to new extremes. Yao
Ming’s story, arising from global trends, also exhibits peculiarly US
dimensions. He is the first “genuine” foreign-born player—without a US
upbringing, US parents and/or a US college apprenticeship—to be given
the opportunity to market himself to North American audiences as an NBA
icon. At the same time, his celebrity has special importance to the US league
and interlocking corporate interests by virtue of his simultaneous appeal to
potentially hundreds of millions of consumers in his home country of 1.3
In the context of commercialized American sports, Yao’s arrival conjoins
two key strategies in the NBA’s efforts to expand across demographics and
geography. First, the league has developed sophisticated machinery to market
itself and associated products, largely via individual personalities. The rivalry
between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird nurtured this approach, while the
Michael Jordan juggernaut took it to its seeming pinnacle. The second
development has been the recruitment and promotion of players born
outside the United States. In 1993, just five non-US recruits were playing in
the league; by 1998, there were 29; the 2002-03 season saw 65 non-US players
on active NBA rosters; and as of January 2004, the league reported “69
international players from 33 countries and territories.”3
Furthermore, non-natives are no longer an afterthought: in the 2001 NBA
draft, five of the 11 international draftees were first-round picks; in 2002, six
of 17 international players picked went in the first round; and in 2003, of 20
selected, nine were taken in the first round and 11 in the second. Five nonUS players coming off US college teams have been the number one draft
pick.4 By 2002, the league was ready to anoint Yao Ming as top prospect, and
he was drafted number one by the Houston Rockets. (The 2003 top selection
of LeBron James highlighted, of course, the steady elevation of another sort
of player who has not come through the US college system—homegrown
prodigies right out of high school).
Yao’s transnational commercial success illustrates the prospect of huge
economic payoffs for the right athlete in the right circumstances, while his
3 NBA tally available at the NBA Web site, at <http://www.nba.com/players/international_
player_directory.html>; site last accessed 15 June 2004.
4 Mychal Thompson, from the Bahamas, in 1978; Hakeem Olajuwon, Nigeria, 1984; Patrick
Ewing, Jamaica, 1985; Tim Duncan, US Virgin Islands, 1997; Michael Olowokandi, Nigeria, 1998; see
the NBA Web site at <http://www.nba.com/draft2003/facts_international.html>; site last accessed
15 June 2004.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
touted achievements as a cultural and political ambassador highlight the
potential of sports icons in other realms. These days, even highbrow US
publications are mindful of the non-sporting ramifications of his celebrity
and the social changes that have made it possible. 5 Yet his appeal is
considerably more complex than the term “cross-cultural” might imply: rather
than possessing a single mode of popularity that automatically cuts across
cultures, perhaps a marketing ideal but likely an impossibility, he is positioned
(and works to position himself) in different ways in American and Chinese
This article examines Yao Ming’s emergence as sporting star, corporate
pitchman and multicultural emissary, focusing attention on how intertwined
interests of sports and merchandising, via mass media, represent his public
image variously for varied audiences. Any such discussion necessarily rests
on Susan Brownell’s groundbreaking work on sport in contemporary China6
and other studies illuminating the history and evolving global connections
of Chinese sports,7 but we go beyond the Chinese context to explore the
multiplicity of representations accompanying Yao Ming’s travels. As a
transnational figure, Yao has already proven extraordinarily adaptable
commercially as well as athletically and culturally, which suits the demands
of his multiple constituencies in the global marketplace. His marketable
persona, rather than establishing itself in some fixed and reliable mode,
must be kept as plastic as possible to ensure maximum profit.
Global mobility and its complications
Yao Ming’s emergence as a global sports figure expresses a relatively new
phenomenon for late-modern subjects within late capitalism, one captured
in Aihwa Ong’s vision of “flexible citizenship.”8 This concept arises from
“the cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that
induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing politicaleconomic conditions,” Ong says. In her study of transnational Chinese
businessmen, Ong finds that “practices favoring flexibility, mobility, and
repositioning in relation to markets, governments, and cultural regimes”
are key to their efforts to accumulate capital and social prestige in the global
5 Peter Hessler, “Home and away: Yao Ming’s journey from China to the N.B.A., and back,” The
New Yorker, 1 December 2003; Jeff Coplon, “The people’s game,” The New York Times Magazine, 23
November 2003.
6 Susan Brownell, Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
7 E.g., Andrew Morris, “Basketball Culture in Post-Socialist China,” in E. Perry Link, Richard P.
Madsen and Paul G. Pickowicz, eds., Popular China (Rowman & Littlefield: 2002).
8 Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1999).
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
arena. “Flexibility, migration, and relocations, instead of being coerced or
resisted, have become practices to strive for rather than stability.”9
Other scholars have used the term “flexible citizenship” in a more literal
sense, posing it as an alternative to traditional notions of citizenship as a
unique, exclusive and usually immutable and lifelong contract between
specific nations and individuals.10 Seyla Benhabib, examining changing
practices of citizenship in the European Union and the fluid nature of
multicultural mosaics within national boundaries, sees notions of flexible
citizenship as a corrective to monolithic views of cultures as distinct
entities.11 Bruno Frey even advocates formalizing the concept with a system
allowing for temporary, multiple, partial and organizational ascription (to
regional governments, for instance, or churches, or even soccer clubs), which
he maintains would better conform to contemporary realities while
promoting both personal preferences and public efficiencies.12 “Citizenship
would no longer be restricted to nations, and would not be imposed at birth,”
he writes.13
Ong’s idea is both metaphorical and materially grounded, but decidedly
not literal. She examines how members of Asia’s business elites and middle
classes have benefited from global capitalism through strategies with
observable manifestations. The Hong Kong businessmen on whom she
focuses, although technically anchored in China, have exploited myriad
possibilities for commercial and personal flexibility. Spurred by the former
British colony’s return to China in 1997, they have sent their children to the
West for education and established residency and even formal citizenship
abroad, while profiting, or more aptly, profiteering from investment in lowwage businesses throughout Southeast Asia. At the same time, they
opportunistically retain their “Chinese-ness” through state-promoted
discourse about the loyalty and business acumen of the huaqiao (overseas
Chinese) and their own self-conceptions about their role in promoting
Chinese economic reform and modernity. They move advantageously across
national boundaries without rejecting their racial and cultural birthright, a
posture reinforced by official discourse about the superiority of “Asian values”
over presumably decadent Western ones. This is the lens we apply to Yao
Ming, a particularly intriguing example of flexible citizenship in furtherance
Ong, Flexible Citizenship, pp. 6, 16.
Scott Gordon, Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
11 Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2002).
12 Bruno Frey, “Flexible Citizenship For a Global Society,” Berkeley Law & Economics Working Papers,
vol. 2001, no. 2, available at the Web site of the Berkeley Electronic Press, at <http://www.bepress.com/
blewp/default/vol2001/iss2/art1>; site last accessed 15 June 2004.
13 Frey, “Flexible Citizenship For A Global Society.”
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
of substantial material reward, who does not rupture his umbilical tie to the
motherland—indeed, this tie remains crucial to his global success.
Michael Giardina applies Ong’s concept of flexible citizenship to the
sporting celebrity of tennis player Martina Hingis, examining Hingis’s
frequent border-crossings in Europe and the US and the pliability of her
mediated, marketable image across Western cultures.“In the age of global
sport,” he observes, “there is an increasing trend among (trans)national
sporting leagues and organizations that engenders an environment conducive
to the emergence of flexible citizens.”14 Hingis, for example, assumes various
roles in different cultural locales. Thus, she can signify the cultured European,
the sophisticated Swiss, or even “Girl Power!” depending on her location
and audience. Giardina argues that Hingis is not simply read differently by
various audiences; rather, she actively positions herself (and is positioned)
differently according to the cultural politics of each market.
But while Giardina’s work usefully directs attention to the figure of the
global sporting celebrity, it does not allow for an exploration of Ong’s interest
in transnational Chinese experiences. Nor does it offer a means of theorizing
the peculiar citizenship that is international sporting celebrity. Our essay
refocuses on Chinese transnationalism, exploring what Ong terms “the
endless capacity to dodge state relations, spin human relations across space,
and find ever new niches to exploit” while attending to the specific dynamics
of Sino-Western relations.15 The particulars of these complex relationships
are important for considering the larger questions she asks about “a world
of Western hegemony, [where] Asian voices are unavoidably inflected by
orientalist essentialisms that infiltrate all kinds of public exchanges about
In an age of global, star-centred sport, it is important to consider how
sporting celebrity complicates Ong’s thesis. The Chinese state has a large
investment in Yao Ming’s public persona and a high stake in his success,
both as the centrepiece of China’s national men’s basketball team and as
the first Chinese player with superstar status abroad. At the same time, Yao
Ming brings an unfamiliar model to the hyper-masculine arena of US-style
commodified basketball. Perhaps the best analogy to Yao’s flexible,
transnational celebrity is Jackie Chan, who moves between Hong Kong, the
United States and mainland China via feature films and business interests,
and means different things in different places. Movies have long been the
vehicle for chameleon properties, of course; the process is less familiar, but
increasingly significant, in sports.
14 Michael Giardina, “Global Hingis: Flexible Citizenship and the Transnational Celebrity,” in
David L. Andrews and Steven J. Jackson, eds., Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity (London:
Routledge, 2001), p. 206.
15 Ong, Flexible Citizenship, p. 136.
16 Ong, Flexible Citizenship, p. 81.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
Roving sportsman and pitchman
In line with Ong’s efforts to integrate realms of political economy, cultural
backdrop and individual agency, we wish to understand Yao Ming’s appeal
to multiple constituencies in the context of a global regime. Here, we
endeavour to sketch out some of the complex and competing “meanings”
of Yao Ming as constructed via mass media by corporate interests, sports and
business media, fans and other observers, in both the US and China, hoping
to illuminate how and why one elite international athlete can become the
focus of so many potent, if overlapping, projected identities.
Months before his selection as the Rockets’ number one pick in the June
2002 draft, the 7’5” (2.26 m.) Yao was already the object of overblown
assertions. His conduct, physique, statements, sponsorships, shortcomings
and strengths, personality and pastimes, were dissected along myriad
dimensions, from nationality, ethnicity and masculinity to modernity,
technology and youth; and his adaptability to the US sports and cultural
arena continues to be the object of scrutiny.
Perhaps most markedly of his many inherent and ascribed attributes, Yao’s
Chinese heritage offered great utility as a transnational marketing tool. In
particular, his arrival presented a timely and welcome alternative to dominant
modes of NBA promotion and commercial sponsorship available to
professional basketball stars. Yao’s nationality and ethnicity, seemingly
straightforward sources of pride in his home country, at the same time
constitute a basis for subtly crafted appeals to Caucasian, Asian-American
and Chinese fans and consumers in the United States that allow for a
distancing of the streetball ethos described earlier.
Of course, Yao Ming is not merely a projection or fabrication; nor is he
solely a commercial vehicle. A baseline for success in sports—the necessary
if not sufficient condition—is athletic excellence, itself the product of
recognition and cultivation. Certainly the threshold is higher for an outsider
or newcomer. Athletes who fail to reach a performance threshold may be
celebrities for other reasons but open themselves up for ridicule—the Russian
player Anna Kournikova, viewed as more successful at cheesecake than tennis,
comes to mind. Positive appraisal of Yao Ming in all realms, therefore, is
contingent upon satisfactory performance on the court, a matter of some
concern to Chinese basketball observers who discern major differences
between playing in China’s professional league, the Chinese Basketball
Association (CBA), and playing at NBA level.17
In Yao’s case, the definition of exemplary performance in his home
country was settled when he led his Shanghai team to the first CBA
championship not won by China’s army team, which traditionally
17 Xu Jicheng, “Behind the formula Yao,” NBA Shikong [NBA Hoops, Chinese edition], December
2002, pp. 38-41.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
commanded its choice of top players from around the country. In the US,
though, the definition has been somewhat of a moving target. Critics,
especially among US sports commentators, made much of the fact that Yao
started off his first NBA season weaker than anticipated (playing 11 minutes
and scoring nothing in his first game, averaging just over 3 points and just
under 4 rebounds in his first six games). Subsequent improvement
(approaching the season’s halfway point, he was averaging 13 points and 8
rebounds per game overall, with a high of 30 points at a game in November)
won over some naysayers while reassuring admirers. Having done sufficiently
well to endear himself to fans, Yao received minimal criticism for making
only one two-pointer in his 17 minutes of playing time in the February 2003
All-Star Game. In the 2003-04 season, commentators remained approving
about his abilities while raising questions about his willingness to exercise
aggression on the court; fan support in 2004 All-Star balloting, meanwhile,
once again put him ahead of the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal as Western starting
centre (although O’Neal emerged with MVP honours from the game itself,
with 24 points to Yao’s 16).
As the basis of his livelihood and reputation, Yao Ming markets his athletic
labour power, a commodity long bought and sold in the international
marketplace, most extensively in soccer but also in many other team sports,
with considerable migration in individual sports as well.18 The nominal
repatriation of large numbers of expat professional players in service to
national teams for summer and winter Olympics is a regular reminder of
this global dispersion of elite athletes. But Yao obviously is more than a wage
slave. He is also the core of an entrepreneurial machine, generating wealth
for himself as well as for his agents, handlers, managers, sponsors, team,
league and, broadly speaking, the institutions of commercialized sport.
Ostensibly, he is selling measurable athletic ability and skills, but beyond
that, he’s selling intangibles of image and celebrity, adaptable to a range of
purposes and audiences that few other athletes can satisfy.
Driving what the US media have come to call “Yaomania” is a global
juggernaut that includes the league and intertwined corporate interests
seeking to capitalize on Yao’s high profile and popularity, which so far include
Nike, Apple, Visa, interactive game developer Sorrent, Gatorade (owned by
Pepsi) and, recently added, McDonald’s. Nike’s arrangement with Yao
predates his drafting; the company had been featuring top Chinese players
in Chinese ad campaigns for several years. Reebok, meanwhile, supplies
Rockets uniforms and thus is entitled to sell official and replica Yao Ming
jerseys; and an offshoot is the memorabilia market (autographed jerseys,
basketballs and photographs, bobblehead dolls and the like). Toyota Motor
18 Pierre Lanfranchi and Matthew Taylor, Moving with the Ball: The Migration of Professional Footballers
(Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001); John Bale and Joseph MacGuire, eds., The Global Sports Arena: Athletic
Talent Migration in an Interdependent World (London: Frank Cass, 1994).
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
Corp. is betting on Yao’s aura to help foster car sales in Asia in conjunction
with its US$100 million naming rights deal with the Rockets for the new
Toyota Center, which opened in July 2003.19
Chinese enterprises are buying into Yao’s global celebrity as well.In the
spring of 2003, Yao signed his first deal with a Chinese-based corporation, a
two-year contract reportedly worth some US$3.6 million with the
telecommunications company China Unicom, the country’s second-largest
mobile phone operator. Unicom billboards featuring his visage quickly
appeared in Chinese cities. The Yanjing Beer Co. of Beijing secured a fiveyear US$6-million deal with Yao’s team, advertising on Rockets arena
billboards that build off his presence; and the New York distributor for the
brand reported that sales in Texas rose from virtually nil to 600 cases a
Yao Ming’s commercial appearances build cleverly on his obvious
amiability. The Gatorade deal, reportedly earning him US$5 million for three
to five years, is predicated partly on his image as a “well-liked … guy,” as well
as on the potential for promoting Gatorade abroad, according to the
company’s sports marketing director. 21 Apple’s TV commercial and
accompanying print campaign that feature him play craftily on size contrasts,
with Yao and the diminutive Verne Troyer, a.k.a. “Mini-Me” in the Austin
Powers movies, comparing PowerBook computers (Troyer, the little guy, has
the big one).22
Beyond his utility as corporate pitchman and draw for his team, Yao Ming’s
presence on an NBA roster is hugely important to the league’s designs for
global expansion. With the US market for basketball games and products
seen as saturated, the NBA, under Commissioner David Stern, views the global
marketplace as the critical arena for continued vitality. Yao’s courting and
drafting led to expanded TV deals in China, the establishment of a Chineselanguage Web presence, and various other tools for appealing to mainland
and diaspora Chinese fans. The NBA put up its first Chinese Web site for the
2002 draft, and subsequently instituted a permanent site in Chinese.
NBA.com and its team sites are now said to draw more than 40 percent of
users from outside the US. By Yao Ming’s first season, fans casting ballots for
the league’s 2003 All-Star Game could do so in Chinese and Spanish as well
as English—and that year they voted Yao in as a starting centre on the West
All-Star team, with Chinese reports exulting that he had gotten more votes
than the Lakers’ O’Neal.
John P. Lopez, “Toyota, Yao an ad exec’s dream,” Houston Chronicle, 24 July 2003.
Ralph Frammolino, “Nike keeps Yao in backcourt as clock runs out on its deal,” Los Angeles
Times, 21 April 2003.
21 Theresa Howard, “Gatorade gets Yao factor,” USA Today, 6 February 2003.
22 The ad may be viewed at the Web site of Apple, at <http://www.apple.com/hardware/video/
powerbookg4bigandsmall.html>; site last accessed 15 June 2004.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
In late 2002, the NBA’s Web site reported the renewal of TV agreements
with a range of international networks, including CCTV in China and ESPN
Star Sports in Asia, adding that “a record 12 telecasters from China will
provide unprecedented NBA coverage to their region.”23 The league broadcast a total of 170 games to China in the 2002-03 season (increased from an
original figure of 120 after the season had begun), including 30 Rockets
games. The ratings are the prize—and the potential ratings even more so.
The NBA likes to say that, in his Chinese TV debut, Yao Ming reached 287
million households, and that additional deals with regional networks were
expected to expand that to 400 million. In fact, these figures refer to
households that could have received the games if they switched on the tube;
actual viewers typically numbered more like 12 to 15 million, often divided
between a live telecast in the morning (of a game being played the previous
night, US time) and a rebroadcast in the evening. But even small segments
of the Chinese market can be large: take the estimated nine million people
who logged on to an hour-and-a-half-long Internet chat with Yao Ming on
the Chinese-language Web portal Sohu.com.24
The backlash to black
NBA and corporate marketing strategy make much of Yao Ming’s Chineseness, and his presumed cultural attributes of civility and gentility, in an implicit
critique of perceived “bad behaviour” in the league. Yao’s first public pitch
for Visa, in a critically applauded TV commercial aired during the 2003 Super
Bowl broadcast, exemplifies how he has been subtly positioned to assuage
anxieties about a particularly aggressive commercial style in which some of
his black NBA colleagues have been presented.25 In the ad, the Chinese
newcomer attempts to buy a miniature Statue of Liberty with a check. He
becomes confused when the clerk, trying to direct his attention to a sign
reading “No checks accepted,” points and says “Yo.” Thinking the woman is
trying to pronounce his name, Yao corrects her. After several more identical
exchanges, he leaves, frustrated. In playfully portraying the gentle, polite
newcomer confronted with urban slang and aggressive attitudes, this ad can
be read in part as a metaphor for the larger context in which Yao was welcomed
into America’s cultural landscape. Humorously, the ad also linked the foreigner
Yao to the world of US sports insiders, ending with baseball great Yogi Berra
experiencing a similiar miscommunication over name pronunciation.
23 “NBA renews international TV deals,” NBA.com, 12 November 2002, available at the NBA
Web site, at <http://www.nba.com/news/international_tv_deals_renewed_021112.html>; site last
accessed 15 June 2004.
24 Darren Rovell, “The master plan to market Yao Ming,” ESPN.com, 18 December 2002, at the
ESPN Web site, at <http://www.bdasports.com/news/mig_yo_2_html>; site last accessed 15 June 2004.
25 The commercial is at numerous sites online, including the Newsday Web site, available at
<http://www.newsday.com/sports/ny-yaoyo-video,0,677080.realvideo?coll=ny-sports-wire-utility>; site
last accessed 15 June 2004.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
A sportswriter known for his reporting on international sports as well as
cultural dimensions of US sport has characterized US basketball as a “highly
visible stage on which blacks and whites [have] acted out the process of
learning to live, play and fight together as peers,” adding that now, “fewer
whites stand on that common ground.”26 This racial dimension gives
professional, commodified basketball a special character in US popular
culture. It is important to remember that the actual work of pro basketball
in the United States, the game’s country of origin more than a century ago
and its undisputed heartland still, is dominated by black men, many of modest
rural or small-town backgrounds and as NBA players now commanding
enviable wealth. Media accounts often represent the NBA as a workplace,
with fans, media and owners entitled to sit in judgment over the “work ethic”
players and teams demonstrate. In a very real sense, the league is a site where
mainstream, mostly white, and increasingly affluent audiences evaluate the
capitalist fitness of a largely black workforce.27 Although criticism often
focuses on “behaviour” and “attitude,” the real problem is young black men
with tremendous amounts of money getting away with perceived
misbehaviour and disrespect because they are so valuable. The fact of their
wealth greatly compounds the much longer history of white anxiety over
how to contain the physical and moral threats presumably posed by black
A remarkable achievement of the Michael Jordan era was its iconic erasure of blatant racial discomfort that ordinarily the composition of the league
would bring to the fore: with only occasional lapses, Jordan was able to escape both patronizing and demonizing extremes often associated with black
athletes.28 In the post-Jordan age, however, uneasiness about the marginal
position of the NBA’s workforce has become more pronounced, occasionally exploding around trivial incidents. A Sports Illustrated piece that criticizes “pouting prima donnas who commit the most outrageous acts of rebellion …”29 expresses institutionalized sports’ alarm. In this account as in
many others, the central importance of race is veiled. Although all but one
player mentioned in this story is black, and the victims of their “rebellion”
are universally white, the explicit topic of race is studiously ignored.Rather,
race references are coded, as when blame is ascribed to “the breakdown of
the traditional family unit.” Clearly, however, race is the inescapable preoccupation.
In this context, Latrell Sprewell’s 1997 attack on his white coach P.J.
Carlesimo was positively apocalyptic. A non-racialized analysis might have
S.L. Price, “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?” Sports Illustrated, 8 December 1997.
David Shields, Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season (New York: Crown, 1999); John
Edgar Wideman, Hoop Roots (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
28 David L. Andrews, ed., Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).
29 Phil Taylor, “Bad Actors,” Sports Illustrated, 1 January 1995, p. 20.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
noted Carlesimo’s chronic verbal abuse, the fact that many players on the
Golden State Warriors disliked him, that Sprewell’s anger flared but briefly
and that the altercation (involving a chokehold and a punch) left Carlesimo
uninjured. Yet the commentary ran strongly, vituperatively and sometimes
mockingly against the player. One columnist, insisting the incident “shouldn’t
be about race,” immediately showed why it was: “Sprewell is in the majority here. He’s a black man in a league that is 80 percent black. Carlesimo is
white, as are the overwhelming majority of coaches in the NBA….” Preposterously, this writer went on to characterize coaches as “a near-powerless
minority” in professional sports, saying, “NBA coaches are often at the mercy
of their players and, except for hockey coaches, are the most powerless individuals in sports.”30
Observers saw the incident as an outrageous affront to authority—of the
coach, the league, the structure of organized sports and, indeed, the world
of proper relationships. Sprewell’s act defied more than mere civility (the
normal workings of many sports do that on a daily basis). His revolt challenged
an institutionalized hierarchy that pervades the NBA—the white authority
to buy, sell, trade and direct black bodies. Sprewell soon returned to the
league, endeared himself to New York metropolitan fans as a player on the
Knicks, and found himself a sought-after commodity within a quasicountercultural marketing scheme—illustrating how athletes who cause
offense off the playing field typically are forgiven if their athletic performance
remains stellar or improves. Yet the choking incident’s repercussions
remained a reminder of the NBA’s larger concerns over the marketing void
left by Jordan’s departure.
The quest for new basketball idols initially produced a number of
candidates who seemed to fit the Jordan mold. For a time, the good-looking,
middle-class, Duke University-educated Grant Hill was the frontrunner, but
he proved to be missing some ineffable component. That he failed to match
Jordan’s promethean level of success on the court certainly figured in his
comparative failure, but so, too, did his nice-guy, unthreatening image in an
age when America’s other prominently black culture industry—that of R&B
and hip hop—was moving toward a very different, more rebellious aesthetic.
Reebok, And1 and other shoe companies, long marginalized by the Nike/
Jordan axis, saw their opportunity. And1 launched the first campaign
celebrating streetball—an alternative basketball universe where the stars were
authentic and (until now anyway) unsullied by commerce. This new strategy
capitalized on a formula already established in hip-hop marketing as gangsta’
rap, rebellion championed by multimillionaire “underdogs” from
underprivileged backgrounds expressing a hyper-masculine countenance.
30 Jim Kelly, “Warriors, NBA, trying to display sanity when sports has gone crazy,” Buffalo News, 7
December 1997, 1B.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
Like the larger hip-hop commercial culture, streetball provided an
important public site for the enactment of the “cool pose”—tough, confrontational, ostentatiously macho. Like hip hop, its uses spread from the margins
to the mainstream. And1’s early ads made heroes of playground stars who
had never played a minute of professional basketball. But marketers soon
identified pro standouts fitting this new ethos. Foremost were Allen Iverson,
Chris Webber and Tracey McGrady, all positioned as rebellious, with a strong
message that style (not merely results) mattered. Predictably, Nike took up
the approach, with a playground-themed “freestyle” campaign attempting
to mesh the gritty urban authenticity of streetball with the more familiar
characters of the NBA.
Despite this strategy’s prospective appeal to younger audiences, however,
reception by older consumers proved cool. Poll results showed that, while
enthusiasm for the NBA remained highest among ages 18-24 and AfricanAmerican demographics, overall interest in the league was declining.
Respondents aged 45-54 were the most disenchanted, and above all unhappy
with the recent trend celebrating rebellious black men. Nearly 30 percent
in this group disliked players with tattoos, and more than 40 percent agreed
that more white, US-born players would help the league.31
The genteel, respectful Kobe Bryant proved more acceptable for a while,
until the sexual assault charges damaged his marketability (even as he
continued to be praised, between appearances in a court of law in Colorado,
for his outstanding performances on the basketball court). At the same time,
the NBA’s expansionist designs and the needs of corporate promoters were
opening up space for a new sort of sports icon. With his endearing mixture
of savvy and ingenuousness, Yao Ming was available to fill it.
Not a boy behaving badly
Joshua Gamson’s study of Hollywood star making offers useful parallels
with the construction of sports celebrity. Movie acting alone is an insufficient
premise for acclaim; rather, the creation and sustenance of film stardom
involves a “merging of screen roles and offscreen personality.”32 Similarly,
attainment and maintenance of sports celebrity requires elaboration of a
character beyond execution of the athletic job. In Yao Ming’s case,
occupational proficiency on the court and personal deportment off it are
both essential, mutually reinforcing components of his public image.
In the arena, Yao is positioned in part as a kind of novelty draw for nonChinese spectators, epitomized in the provision of fortune cookies (a US
invention) as audience favours at some games. Jocular, if affectionate,
Jack McCallum, “Sky Rocket,” Sports Illustrated, 10 February 2003.
Joshua Gamson, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1994), p. 26.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
references to his nationality abound on the Rockets’ Web site. US reporters
use monikers like Ming Dynasty and Great Wall and uninformed orientalisms
on the order of “…quicksilver point guard Steve Francis plays yin to Yao’s
yang (or is it yang to Yao’s yin?)….”33
Overall, however, positive assessments of Yao Ming’s play have translated
into a more respectful evaluation of him as a serious player. At the same
time, fans in the US have warmed to an element of silliness surrounding Yao
Ming that might not take with a more sophisticated star. He’s even got a
theme song, “It’s a Ming Thing,” whose chorus is simply his name repeated
two dozen times. The Rockets president, George Postolos, entertained a
basketball reception in Beijing with the song and also delivered it on Chinese
TV. Meanwhile, fans watching NBA broadcasts in China are amused by the
American pronunciation of Yao Ming with emphatic falling tones that make
it sound like the Chinese for “We want your life!”
Despite some criticism of Yao Ming’s playing and attempts to qualify the
hype enveloping his largely untested career, the US media overall has
delivered one valentine after another, conveying appealing representations
of a hard-working, earnest, funny and self-effacing yet confident young man,
a fast learner with a good attitude, adjusting nicely to the strangeness of
American life. Regarding athletic ability and performance, he is described
as skillful and versatile, with a “feel” for the game. Mention of Yao’s
“toughness” and “healthy nastiness” are meant as compliments and confined
to the court. Unsurprisingly, his size is highlighted and sometimes occasions
the term “scary,” but he’s more often “loveable.” His “flat-top” or “buzz cut”
is frequently mentioned; grosser representations of his anatomy, such as
comments on his “thick rear and oak-trunk thighs,” are rare.34
On two consecutive weeks during his first NBA season, Yao was on the
cover of Sports Illustrated and then ESPN The Magazine, the latter offering a
“day-in-the-life” account. Evidently the worst thing Yao could do was dent a
teammate’s car in a fender-bender while practicing driving in a parking lot.
Time also profiled him, saying, “He loves Starbucks, computer games, action
movies and SUVs, and when his Great Wall of a face cracks a smile, arenas
light up.”35
In the discourse connecting his role in the game with his life outside, Yao
above all is well behaved—his own person, but also tractable and
unthreatening. His heritage and upbringing figure importantly in this
assessment; his foreign-ness, rather than a liability, becomes an asset. In a
context where unruly African-American men are perceived to have created
a threat to white authority, Western ideas about the role of discipline in
Oriental culture are glorified.
McCallum, “Sky Rocket.”
Ian Thomsen, “The new Mr. Big,” Sports Illustrated, 28 October 2002, cover, pp. 66-70.
Josh Tyrangiel, “The center of attention,” Time, 10 February 2003, pp. 68-71.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
Again, racial references remain coded, but when Yao is praised for his
comportment, the antithesis is clearly young black men deemed to be
grandstanding narcissists. ESPN: The Magazine tells us: “Yao’s humility is
presented as standing in sharp contrast to prima donnas who dominate the
game, a humble, team-first attitude that blows through the NBA like a blast
of fresh air into a collapsed mine shaft.”36 This is because “The Chinese
mindset is rooted in teamwork and discourages one player from standing
out over others.”37 He’s ideally coachable, in contrast to a workforce imagined
as selfish and arrogant. “Yao doesn’t try to score every time he touches the
ball….Yao simply—and refreshingly—believes the game isn’t meant to be
played that way.”38
Yao figures among a new breed of international recruits who are said to
be “complete players, not specialists,” offering a fast-moving passing game
that spectators supposedly welcome as a good change from one-on-one
confrontation.39 Foreign players are deemed more mature and betterbehaved: “These men look even better when they get here and stand next to
Americans. They didn’t grow up driving Hummers in high school, and they
don’t stand on the loading dock threatening officials. They stand, instead,
as decent guys, and Yao ranks with any.”40 He’s said to be “refreshing because,
in a world where the NBA’s current crop of players seem to be all about
salaries, stats, and rebounds, Yao is all about the game.”41
Also noteworthy is that Yao Ming is presented as the product of a stable
family to whom he is very close—his parents even helped him select his
Houston house and moved in with him there. Yao’s upbringing is appraised
as “fairly normal” and “middle-class.”42 In fact, his family life has been
depicted as a kind of anomaly in China, more closely aligned with many
core features of middle-class Western ideals. Although both parents played
professional basketball in China, they did not dictate their son’s career path.
In a TV report just prior to the 2002 NBA draft, Yao commented that his
parents departed from traditional patterns in giving him “the freedom to
choose what I wanted to do.”43
Yao’s perceived commitment to the traditional family unit contrasts sharply
with the public condemnation of black male sexuality and the pathologizing
of the black family. In a well-publicized incident, Yao even invited AfricanAmerican superstar rival Shaquille O’Neal to dine with his family in Houston.
Ric Bucher, “American Idol,” ESPN: The Magazine, 17 February 2003, p. 44.
Cal Fussman, “Next Athlete,” ESPN: The Magazine, 25 December 2000, p. 84.
Bucher, “American Idol.”
Daniel Eisenberg, “The NBA’s global game plan,” Time, 9 March 2003.
Buck Harvey, “Shaq’s foreign element? It’s called maturity,” San Antonio Express-News, 20 January
Vanessa E. Jones, “Center of attention,” Boston Globe, 3 March 2003.
Fussman, “Next Athlete.”
“2002 NBA Draft,” broadcast on TNT, 26 June 2002.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
The invitation was viewed as particularly magnanimous, given that O’Neal
had previously made a poorly received joke likening Mandarin to gibberish.
O’Neal reportedly turned it down so he could visit one of his children who
lives in the area.
Yao himself had not taken offense at O’Neal’s lame attempt at humour,
offered prior to their first Rockets-Lakers face-off, and instead made light of
Shaq’s pidgin Chinese, telling journalists: “There are a lot of difficulties in
the two different cultures understanding each other. Chinese is hard to learn.
I had trouble with it when I was little.” He went on to handle his first game
against the NBA’s other “big” centre commendably, and a New York Times
columnist suggested O’Neal “might pick up some valuable pointers on
composure, open-mindedness and leadership” as well as some lessons in
“global conduct” from Yao.44 O’Neal subsequently complained that the media
had blown up his comments when no hard feelings existed.
Granted, Yao’s image as a model minority has limits. Warrior masculinity
is a central element of basketball’s appeal—the very element streetball
marketing so effectively celebrated. Yao Ming is judged something of a failure
in this regard. This is hardly surprising, given the feminized position men of
Asian descent have traditionally occupied in American culture. On the day
Yao was drafted, there was a general consensus that he would have to get
stronger to compete with the other players in the NBA. Said TNT analyst
Dei Lynam: “That’s the big question—how he will adjust to the physicality of
the NBA.” Hubie Brown, another TNT analyst, questioned Yao’s upper and
lower body strength, adding that it could “be developed with the strength
and conditioning guys over the next few years.”45
Yao Ming’s two most-covered rivalries in his rookie season came against
Amare Stoudemire, the muscular forward from the Phoenix Suns and Yao’s
main rival for the Rookie of the Year award (which Stoudemire won); and
the 7’1”, 330-pound O’Neal. These matchups received intense media
coverage, with most broadcast nationally. One account called Yao and
Stoudemire “a startling contrast—an encyclopedia of moves versus brute,
ferocious strength.” Later, the article described Yao’s first game with O’Neal
through the eyes of Yao’s parents, who watched “with quiet, concerned looks
as Shaq began to manhandle their son.”46
US coverage of Yao Ming’s performance continues to express a curious
tension between approval over genteel cultural tendencies that make the
player a nice guy, and concern about whether he can overcome such
tendencies when facing more bellicose rivals on the court. Yao “has yet to
develop the aggression and the ferocity that the game’s most powerful play,
Selena Roberts, “Yao proving a bigger man than O’Neal,” New York Times, 18 January 2003, D1.
“2002 NBA Draft,” broadcast on TNT, 26 June 2002.
Bucher, “American Idol.”
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
the slam dunk, has come to symbolize,” intones a New York Times reporter.47
An Associated Press account echoes this ambivalence, encapsulating the
starkly perceived difference between a gracious Chinese talent and an
assertive African-American one: “The Houston Rockets would love to see 7foot-6 Yao Ming regularly thundering down the lane and finishing with a
dunk. Of course, that is about as likely as seeing Los Angeles Lakers center
Shaquille O’Neal politely entering the lane, gently dropping the ball through
the net, then placidly trotting downcourt.”48
The Chinese homeboy
Chinese and US constructions of Yao Ming appear to have much in
common. His reputation back home also melds athletics and personality; in
tandem with coverage of his basketball moves, mass media elaborate his
every activity and proclivity off the court. Perhaps even more effusively in
China than in the US, coverage of Yao reflects the form of stardom that
evolved in the latter part of the 20th century, which encourages spectators
to delve into the “ordinariness” of the extraordinary.49 On the plethora of
Chinese Web sites devoted to Yao Ming fandom, we learn what he likes to
eat (hot pot), how big his feet are (size 52—or 18 by US measure), who his
girlfriend is (a 1.90-metre-tall Shanghai basketball player, member of the
Chinese national women’s team), and so on. The Chinese newspapers and
Web sites that track his doings constantly offer, along with running stats for
every court appearance, updates of personal encounters and goals and
landmarks. Fans know he also likes pizza and frappuchino, plays video games,
instant-messages with friends in China…. They knew he was working on
getting his driver’s license, and knew when he got it.50
Yet similar details add up to different master narratives. With hardly more
than the usual distortions, Yao’s story fits well into standard American tropes
emphasizing the drama of individual merit and achievement. He’s even an
47 Chris Broussard, “Rockets seek to uncover Yao’s 7-foot-6 mean streak,” The New York Times, 8
January 2004, C17.
48 January 24, 2004.
49 Gamson, “Claims to Fame.”
50 Chinese-language Web sites devoted to Yao Ming or with considerable attention to him include:
<http://china.yaoming.net>, his “official” Yaoming Web site ; <http://china.nba.com>, the NBA’s
Chinese site, which tracks every game Yao plays; special sections on the large portals sina.com and
netease.com, <http://sports.sina.com.cn/z/nbayaoming/> and <http://sports.163.com/tm/021224/
021224_277877.html>, the fan site <http://www.chinayao.com/> as well as celebrity sites <http://
www.befond.net/star/yaoming/> and <http://www.china-boy.com/sunidol/china/yaoming/>, where
he joins singers and movie stars; and sports sites such as <http://sports.21dnn.com/4845/2002-6-21/
[email protected]> and <http://sports.online.sh.cn/sports/gb/special/node_3695.htm>. Most major
national media sites such as those of Xinhua, People’s Daily and CCTV offer lots of Yao Ming coverage.
The People’s Daily Web site <http://www.people.com.cn/>, in addition to reporting major news about
Yao Ming, has lively sports bulletin boards where Yao figures heavily; and <www.chinanews.com.cn>,
catering to overseas Chinese, has lots of Yao Ming content. All sites last accessed 15 June 2004.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
the Chinese league and government units. The amount his old team can
collect depends on his tenure in the NBA: if he stays as long as 12 years, the
Sharks could get up to $15 million.54 And the Rockets’ agreement to Yao’s
continued participation on China’s national team for important regional
and international competitions is no trifle either; to the contrary, this
allegiance is vital to his appeal back home, and thus useful to the NBA’s
strategy for continued global growth.
China’s durable claims on Yao, both monetary and political, have
occasioned some US media derision; they are viewed as the obdurate edge
of Communist authoritarianism that attenuates concessions to the free
market, including the freedom to sell one’s labour power to the highest
bidder. On the flip side, much appreciated in China and largely unrecognized
in US accounts, are the values of national pride, loyalty and entitlement.
Chinese accounts speak of “national duty.” Yao Ming is merely working for
the Americans; his heart belongs to China. This conviction gained credence
when, upon returning for national team practice in the spring of 2003, Yao
Ming hosted a Shanghai telethon to raise money for the campaign against
SARS. The NBA did not pass up the chance to promote itself in the process.A
video message contributed by Yao’s team ended: “The Houston Rockets and
China. You’re part of us. We’re part of you.”55
American inability to fathom Yao Ming’s patriotism finds notable exception
among one group: fans of Chinese ethnicity. Yao Ming has proved a huge
draw for expatriate Chinese and Chinese-American audiences, bringing a
desirable demographic—educated and relatively affluent, if proportionately
small—into the NBA’s domestic fan base. Teams have addressed this
opportunity with campaigns to attract Chinese and Asian spectators,
employing Chinese-language advertising and special promotions to reach a
hitherto ignored niche.
Heralding his first season, the Rockets erected billboards with Yao’s image
and the team slogan “Be part of something big” in Chinese; and the team
sold “Yao Ming Big Man” packages including tickets for six games against
NBA teams with other prominent centres.56 The team also launched a weekly
locker-room radio interview show with Yao in Mandarin. The Celtics
promoted their first “Asian-American Night” for a Celtics-Rockets game in
March, which sold out and brought signs of “Yo, Yao” and “Chairman Yao”
into the stands.57 Similar scenes coalesced from San Francisco to Detroit.
Yao brings out “a part of our country that has been mostly silent since they
54 Stefan Fatsis, Peter Wonacott and Maureen Tkacik, “A basketball star from Shanghai is big
business,” Wall St. Journal, 22 October 2002.
55 This video is available at the NBA Web site, at <http://www.nba.com/rockets/news/Rockets_
SARS_Telethon_Videos-75163-34.html>; site last accessed 16 June 2004.
56 Barron, “Big man inc.”
57 Jones, “Center of Attention.”
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
built our railroads,” observed a writer to the “technology and culture” site
The enthusiasm of this audience is accompanied by notions that Yao Ming
can inspire reconnection with Chinese culture, including interest among
children of Chinese heritage growing up in the US. This idea was conveyed
in a report posted on the Web site of Yao Ming’s Houston fan club, in which
an activist in the group told of taking his son Sunny to Rockets games, and
also to a read-aloud session for children. “Yao Ming read a George Washington
story to the kids in Chinese. Sunny didn’t like speaking Chinese that much
before. Now he practices his Chinese often. I know he should be able to
speak in Chinese with Yao Ming if he ever gets a chance.”59
With his size, strength and power, Yao also defies stereotypes of the feminine Asian male. Journalist Ursula Liang sees him as an empowering role
model for Asian Pacific Americans, or APA’s, that goes beyond breakthroughs
in politics or Hollywood; sports, she says, offers “the chance to escape some
of the emasculating stereotypes that haunt APA’s: Too small, too weak.
Too quiet, too meek. And by the way, math won’t help you here.” 60
Some observers position Yao as an object of double ethnic
discrimination—as a minority in America, and as a Chinese on a court
dominated by blacks. The episode in which Shaquille O’Neal spoke gibberish
intended to sound like Chinese gave rise to heated discussion among Chinese
and Chinese-American netizens about racism against Asians in sports and
generally, even prompting circulation of Internet petitions objecting to the
presumed racist implications. “Shaquille O’Neill [sic] attempted to dehumanize Yao Ming just like the great Ty Cobb tried to dehumanize Jackie
Robinson,” declared one commentator, who went on to link Shaq’s remarks
to the imprisonment of scientist Wen Ho Lee “on racially-influenced spy
charges” and the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.61
A fan’s missive to a Chinese-language basketball discussion on sohu.com
suggested the ease with which acclaim can slide into chauvinism: “Yao Ming
scored only two points at the All-Star Game. So what? I want to say that he
still is the best!” The writer continued, “Everyone would recognize this axiom:
one’s own children are the best of all….Yao Ming is a good child of us yellowskinned Chinese, who take great pride in him. He is tall and secondly quite
handsome. He is mild and reasonable and conducts himself in good taste.
Posted by “Wah” on 5 February 2003.
Michael Chang, “Sunny and Yao Ming,” Yao Ming Fan Club site, 15 February 2003, available at
<http://www.yaomingfanclub.org/sunnyym.html>; site last accessed 16 June 2004.
60 Ursula Liang, “The emphasis is not on ‘Asian’ but ‘American,’” ESPN The Magazine, 1 May
61 Irwin Tang, “The right to be racist against Asians,” ModelMinority.com, 5 January 2003, available
at <http://modelminority.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=267>; site last accessed
16 June 2004.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
More important, he is doing a good job in the NBA. Although that blackskinned O’Neal might be a more awesome player, he is the child of others. If
you don’t take pride in Yao Ming, then in whom would you take pride? Our
Yao Ming is the greatest!”62
Ambivalence over dalliances with capitalism
Although China’s market-oriented reforms began in the late 1970s, the
transition took nearly two decades to permeate the state-run sports system,
starting with experiments in commercialization in soccer, and then basketball,
tennis and volleyball, in the 1990s. But the emphasis on professionalism,
profits and winning quickly established itself.63 In the context of China’s
larger economic project, Yao Ming’s lucrative adventures in the global
marketplace are a source of Chinese pride. His enjoyment of the fruits of his
fame expresses the ambitions of a growing urban middle class, while his
affinity with hip modern products speaks to an extroverted youth culture.
At the same time, his runaway commercial success showcases the correctness
of official policy, which laid the ground for the athletic mobility that enables
him to work abroad.
Both US and Chinese media have reported widely on the marketing of
Yao Ming, with Chinese accounts often taking information from the detailed
reports that have appeared in the US press.64 Yet even as a creature of
commodity capitalism, Yao Ming is not seen as its prisoner. His ability to
control the extent and nature of his own crass commercial exploitation has
itself become a topic of note and admiration on both continents. His “Team
Yao” of savvy individuals running his business strategy, led by his cousin Erick
Zhang, a University of Chicago MBA student, has set out guidelines for the
most desirable associations of his persona and image with commercial
products. Yao’s parents, who move with him, are presumed to be another
source of restraint. And unusual attention has focused on his interpreter
Colin Pine, a former state department translator, who also lives in Yao Ming’s
house, is close by on all public occasions and is clearly a kind of minder and
cultural adviser as well.
Rather than shirking publicity, Yao’s team has been forthcoming about
its strategies and corporate endorsement deals. The team has shared its
conclusions, based on focus groups conducted throughout China, that the
target market is “the 460 million kids, parents and yuppies” of urban China.65
Posted by “macy305” on 10 February 2003.
Dong Jinxia, Women, Sport and Society in Modern China: Holding up More than Half the Sky (London:
Frank Cass, 2003), pp. 124-126.
64 For instance, Barron, “Big man inc.”; Fatsis et al., “A basketball star from Shanghai”; Longman,
Jere, “Yao’s success speeds N.B.A.’s plans for China,” The New York Times, 15 December 2002; Darren
Rovell, “The master plan to market Yao Ming,” ESPN.com, 18 December 2002, available at <http://
www.bdasports.com/news/mig_yo_2_html>; site last accessed 16 June 2004.
65 Rovell, “The master plan.”
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
Deals are sought that reflect such “key personality traits” as hardworking,
self-confident, respectful, talented, heroic, charismatic and light-hearted.And
part of the message is that these attributes are genuine. Association of Yao’s
image with high-technology products like cell phones and computers was
logical “because he enjoys those things,” says one of his advisers. 66
Emphasizing image even over money, Yao’s team filed a lawsuit in May 2003
against Coca-Cola’s Chinese subsidiary for using his picture without his
permission—but asking for only one yuan (about 12 US cents). The company
ceased and apologized, and the suit was dropped.
Yao has also appeared in the US dairy industry’s “Got milk?” campaign,
and his participation is easily read as an endorsement of improved nutritional
and living standards, making Asian children taller than their parents.
Although this effort is directed at US consumers, the Chinese media have
assiduously reported it and every other deal, and the portrait of health
resonates against Chairman Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted observation from the
early years of the PRC, still trotted out in connection with any official
retrospective of Chinese sports, that, “In the past, China was called ‘the sick
man of East Asia.’ Our economy and culture were seen as backward. The
Chinese people were seen as unfit and they were weak at sports and
Beneath the acclaim, however, are undertones of ambivalence about Yao’s
success in the multinational marketplace. Occasional press accounts and
chatter on the Web poke at Yao’s capacity to cash in on his talents and
reputation, with implied and sometimes explicit criticism of him and his
family as sell-outs. The Chinese press has reported, for instance, that in
preparation for future growth of the Yao Ming business empire, his family
applied to the state for 24 trademarks bearing his name. Even in an era of
vastly lopsided fortunes, his estimated and potential earnings jump out:
US$10 million a year for the time being, maybe $300 million by the time he
is 40.
One report contrasted Yao’s flush situation with that of a previous giant
in Chinese basketball—Mu Tiezhu, the “iron pillar,” now in his 50s, who was
a prominent obstacle on the Chinese Army team during the latter part of
the Cultural Revolution. Mu comments that he used to make only a soldier’s
stipend of 7 yuan per month, and says his most memorable career moment
was when he joined the Communist Party.68 A Chinese observer writing to
the Chinanews.com.cn site likened Yao Ming to a “Kournikova-style vase”
that is merely a vehicle for generating profit.69 Another account, however,
Barron, “Big man inc.”
“Sports achievements of 50 years,” 10 September 1999, available at the People’s Daily Web
site, at <http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/china/>; site last accessed 16 June 2004.
68 Qilu Evening News (Jilin, China), 5 March 2003, available at the China News Web site, at <http://
www.chinanews.com.cn/n/2003-03-05/26/278928.html>; site last accessed 16 June 2004.
69 Posted 3 March 2003.
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
appearing on a “strengthen China” discussion site hosted by the People’s Daily’s
People.com.cn, compared Yao Ming favourably to the iconic selfless soldier
Lei Feng, suggesting that much as serving the people was the watchword of
the past, contributing to economic development through application of one’s
talents is appropriate for the present.70
The burden of global celebrity
The “young giant,” as he’s often called in the Chinese press, may look
like an overgrown boy, but Yao Ming also is the quintessential,
deterritorialized postmodern figure subject to claims from all quarters.
Barring catastrophic deterioration in his basketball performance, the global
creation, negotiation and circulation of his image should continue to grow
through the lifespan of his professional career. As one US journalist puts it:
“The Yao craze knows no limits to time, geography or media.”71
It can be said that, short of defection, Yao Ming has become as “free” an
agent as an athlete still partly beholden to the Chinese sports system can be.
So far, he has met demands of multiple constituencies remarkably well,
satisfying his country and his corporate employers as well as fans and
consumers. His very success at negotiating this balance seems to qualify him
as a kind of diplomat, with fans, sports commentators and government
functionaries ascribing to him the potential to foster understanding between
China and the US. From the Chinese perspective, his position as
representative of Chinese greatness shades into larger geo-political symbolism
and a prospective role as international mediator. From the US vantage point,
his achievements as a Chinese national succeeding in America generate
similar assumptions. Even China’s ambassador to the United States, Yang
Jiechi, has heralded Yao’s importance for advancing Sino-American relations,
calling his joining the Rockets an example of “constructive engagement”
between the two countries.
The expectations range from simple acts of cultural communication to
major feats of diplomacy. During Yao’s first winter abroad, Chinese media
reported his anticipation of eating turkey for Thanksgiving, and a US reporter
privy to that initiation called the experience “all part of the fun as an evershrinking planet grows smaller.”72 Web discussions about Sino-US relations
offer declarations like: “Yao will do more to move these two countries together
in the hearts of the two countries than an army of diplomats could ever
hope to achieve in a decade. The most powerful nation in the world and the
soon-to-be most powerful nation in the world do not need to spill their
Discussion on kuro5hin.org, posted 10 March 2003.
Eric Fisher, “Going global,” The Washington Times, 5 January 2003.
Fran Blinebury, “Yao gets second helping of Americana,” Houston Chronicle, 28 November 2002.
Agile Big Man: The Flexible Marketing of Yao Ming
nationalist idiotic passions on the battlefield. They can do it on the basketball
The hyperbole sometimes includes reminders that the topic is, after all,
entertainment. “We just think Yao will not only change hoops but also unite
East and West,” is how ESPN The Magazine explained its selection of Yao
Ming for the cover of its annual “next” issue, devoted to promising athletic
prospects, at the end of 2000. The explanation goes on, “Think Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And imagine an NBA Finals that 1.25 billion Chinese
care about.” 74 Chinese forums likewise qualify grandiose pronouncements
with an ongoing “only-a-game” subtext; web discussion seesaws back and
forth between the earthshaking and the trite. Yet those who think this envoy
from the Oriental to the Occidental world is encumbered with a burden
that no mortal, let alone a mere athlete, should bear, are reminded of
historical precedent: sports, after all, helped pave the way for US-China
rapprochement through the ping-pong diplomacy of the early 1970s.
Ultimately, as a Sports Illustrated writer observes, “Yao’s ethnicity is the one
thing that sets him apart from all other athlete-endorsers….”75 His ethnicity
serves the NBA’s ongoing efforts at “maximizing its demographic diversity
across all markets” 76 and gives corporate sponsors access to specific
demographics—youth, middle-class white, upwardly mobile Asian. It also
provides distance from the sometimes troublesome imagery associated with
African-American sports celebrity; his stance and expressions on billboards,
in print ads and in TV commercials are straightforward and innocuous,
sexuality and even muscularity played down, risk and threat absent. His
athleticism may provide the passport for his geographic mobility, but his
Chinese-ness and its utility for bending to varied local, national and global
desires enable him to travel imaginatively as well.
Sports scholar Garry Whannel has observed that media accounts typically
“narrativize” sports, transforming them into stories revolving around star
characters, both heroes and villains.77 Yao Ming is a fresh hero for multiple
narratives. He embodies flexible citizenship, characterized by global mobility
and cultural adaptability, and flexible celebrity, whose purposes and
resonances answer to different constituencies in opportunistic ways. He
upholds reassuring conservative values for the league, the media, business
and fans in the US, while reinforcing sentiments of strength, independence
and ambition among those who identify with him ethnically and culturally.
Posted 5 February 2003.
Cal Fussman, “Next athlete,” ESPN The Magazine, 25 December 2000, cover, pp. 78-87.
75 McCallum, “Sky Rocket.”
76 Rick Horrow, “On the rebound: NBA going strong in post-Sept. 11 climate,” SportsLine.com, 4
February 2003, available at the CBS Web site, at <http://cbs.sportsline.com/general/story/6168629>;
site last accessed 16 June 2004.
77 Garry Whannel, “Individual stars and collective identities in media sport,” in Maurice Roche,
ed., Sport, Popular Culture and Identity (Aachen: Meyer & Meyer, 1998).
Pacific Affairs: Volume 77, No. 2 – Summer 2004
In China, meanwhile, he personifies the unsettling nature of multinational
capitalism and entrepreneurial opportunity while affirming nationalistic
sentiments and pride. Regardless of whether history deems him a great player
or merely a very good one, he has made an enduring mark as a flexible
global citizen-celebrity for the twenty-first century.
The exemplar may come from sports, but the significance of Yao Ming’s
celebrity goes far beyond that realm, for the worldwide peddling of basketball
is but one indicator of the broader ideas of “markets” and “marketing” and
their growing relevance in hitherto more insulated contexts, including China.
Moreover, we hope our study also represents more than a snapshot of
contemporary interactions between culture and identity. From a historical
perspective, the Yao Ming phenomenon can help us understand how patterns
of cultural production and consumption which already have transformed
North America are enveloping much of the rest of the world as well.
University of Iowa, Iowa City, U.S.A., June 2004