Houston Hoping Linsanity Channels Yao

The Wall Street Journal reports that New York Knicks fans aren’t alone in their disappointment over the news that Jeremy Lin will play for the Houston Rockets next year:

As unhappy as some U.S. basketball fans may be at news that the NBA’s New York Knicks decided not match the Houston Rockets’ offer for point guard phenom Jeremy Lin– and some are very unhappy indeed – at least folks in China will be pleased with result, right? After all, Lin is going to the team that forever won the adoration of Chinese basketball fans by helping homegrown basketballer Yao Ming become a global megastar.

Judging by reaction on Chinese social media sites, not so much.

“Good luck, I guess. In the past, there was a Chinese guy named Yao who was also tricked into wasting years with [Houston],” one user of Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service wrote in reaction to the news, expressing a sentiment widely repeated elsewhere on the site.

The Rockets hope that Lin’s arrival will boost the team’s relevance in China and fill the void left by the 2011 retirement of Yao Ming, according to The New York Times. TIME’s Sean Gregory cuts through the hype and examines the likely commercial impact of Lin’s move:

According to Forbes, Houston’s overall revenues increased 87% between 2002, the year the Rockets drafted Yao, and 2010, the year before he retired. Operating income jumped from $7 million in 2002 to $36 million in 2010, a more than a five-fold increase. The team’s value soared from $255 million in 2002 to $443 million in 2010, a 97% jump. Having the big guy clearly didn’t hurt.

Further, given Houston’s prior ties to the Chinese market because of Yao, the team is in better position than most to benefit from Lin’s strong performances. “Culturally, the Chinese market is built on long-term relationships,” says Swaangard. Chinese brands looking to increase their presence in the U.S. — and boost their prestige back home — partnered with the Rockets. For example Anta Sports Products Ltd., a Chinese athletic shoe company with 4,000 retail outlets in that country, inked a four-year arena signage deal with the Rockets back in 2007. Yao helped secure the 20-year, $100 million naming rights deal for Houston’s arena, which opened in 2003. Toyota was looking to expand sales in China, and signed on after Yao’s rookie year. With so many Rocket games being broadcast in China during the Yao era, multinational American companies like Anheuser-Busch and Adidas purchased bilingual Mandarin-English arena signage at the Toyota Center that television viewers could see. (NBA teams don’t have to share arena signage revenues).

After drafting Yao, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander founded Rocket Capital, a private investment company that “specializes in investments in emerging markets with a strong focus on the Greater China region.” Rocket Capital has invested in Chinese railway, auto, tea, and mining companies, among others; it has also poured millions into the Hong Kong’s IPO and equity markets. With Lin on board, and Yao maybe opening some doors, Alexander could gain access to more opportunities in China that could further benefit the franchise financially.

“The fact that the Rocket brand is a big deal in China makes Jeremy Lin more valuable to the team,” says George Postolos, the Rockets president and CEO from 2002-2006 who now holds the same positions with the Houston Astros. “The Rockets aren’t starting from scratch. Adding Jeremy Lin to the picture is a natural extension of what they’ve done.”


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