CC Issue 04 / Sport

The Rise and Fall of Chinese Basketball (if you’ll pardon the rhyme)

The summer has seen the retirement of Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, and the anticipated rise of Li Na to dominance in women’s tennis. While the television, footwear, sportswear  and soft drink industries—not to mention the NBA—winced at the prospect the revenues lost through Yao’s retirement, others eagerly hovered over Li Na as she rocketed to stardom with her win in this year’s French open.

Li Na’s relative approachability, attractiveness, and skill had made many hope that she would take the place of Yao Ming in keeping the lucrative Chinese market open to the Western media and merchandising.

Alas, for the marketers, it was not to be. Of course it has not helped that Li Na has failed to affect a winning streak, losing in the second round of Wimbledon. But even so, the marketers themselves overlooked a crucial factor that makes it impossible for Li Na fill Yao Ming’s shoes:

She is a girl.

(Yes, haha, of course she is smaller than him physically.)

In China, the preference for boys over girls is deeply entrenched in the culture, both ideologically and historically. The hierarchical relationships espoused by Confucius, who is more or less the philosophical founder of Chinese thinking, put teacher over student, parent over child, and husband/man over wife/woman.

This preference is reflected clearly in the significant sex-ratio imbalance in China, where in 2010 there were just over 118 men to every 100 women. Female infants are often aborted or abandoned after birth, and in a country where the one-child policy is still at large, girls do not fare well.

And so the mainly male sports-watching population of China would never deign to take such a keen interest in a female athlete.

Whereas Yao Ming represented the hopes and dreams of many a Chinese man—success, wealth, and recognition in the Western world, while maintaining the values of Chinese society—Li Na can at best hope to be a poster child and perhaps open the sports world up a bit more for the female population of China. She will never have the marketing pull of her male predecessor.

Yao Ming has had a unique role in the world of the NBA. In many ways his respectability acted as a ballast or anchor to the antics and outright greed of many of his American counterparts. The current lockout is a case in point of what overblown egos and unreasonable management can do to a perfectly good game.

Yao Ming, on the other hand, just seemed happy to play. And his skill was such that he warranted a legitimate place in the league, not just a token player admitted only for the sake of representing his country. And for the NBA itself he was a good thing simply for the fact that he gave some genuine credence to the laughable claim of “World Champions” that the winner of the finals takes on itself every year. (When there is a real World Championship in basketball like the World Cup in football, then maybe this title can have some real meaning.)

So, it remains to be seen: Will basketball’s popularity gradually peter out since the prince of the sport has retired?

The constantly crowded playground courts here in Hong Kong suggests that on the street level, at least, the sport will continue to be played and appreciated.

Will another rise to take his place?

Or, wonder of wonders, might the perhaps millions of teenagers who are now honing their skills maybe be left in peace by the Western media and marketing hounds, to enjoy the game and discover their potential as athletes, not to mention human beings.

Who can tell?

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Chinese Basketball (if you’ll pardon the rhyme)

  1. I haven’t seen much of Li sadly, but I like her as a person. I remember, prior to the Australian Final this year, she was asked how much a win would galvanize the sport of tennis in the Mainland and she simply shrugged and replied that after a month no one would care. With such a level head (not to mention a touch of cynicism) it wasn’t much of a surprise to find she has a degree in journalism. She also dropped out of the national Chinese tennis team in order to pick her own coach and retain more of her prize money. Her refusal to “play ball” with powers-that-be might give an indication as to why she won’t replace Yao Ming as a marketing giant.

    Good on her though. All that marketing bollocks is rubbish anyways. If a country/region fail to rally around a talented sportsperson just because they lack marketing nous, then they deserve whatever long term failure comes their way.

    Note: I think you mixed up things in this sentence:
    “In China, the preference for girls over boys is deeply entrenched in the culture…”

    Also, its interesting to see the different in Chinese sports fans interest in their heroes. This short piece was on Cristiano Ronaldo’s visit to China in the summer:

  2. Thanks for comments, and correction. I’ve fixed the mistake now.

    Apparently the Chinese fans aren’t very tolerant of pouting, which sounds like what Ronaldo was up to. Too much travel perhaps.

    Interestingly, I read yesterday that makes me think in fact the endorsement deals may provide a way for independent athletes to break away from the state system, kind of like Li Na. Check it out if you like:

    Though it might just be from one form of slavery to another.

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