Friday, November 09, 2007

Yikes! Yao vs. Yi is huge

This is what NBA Commissioner David Stern had in mind that night of the 2002 NBA draft when, with visions of a vast global market waiting to be conquered, he called out the name Yao Ming.

This is what Rockets owner Leslie Alexander thought the next morning when he said, ``This is the biggest individual sports story of all time.''

This will be a night that seemed impossible a few years ago when a November game between the Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks represented anything but what tonight's game will be, a must-have ticket and an international sporting event.

Tonight will bring the first NBA meeting of Yao and the player expected to be the next Chinese NBA star, Yi Jianlian, an occasion that could draw the largest global audience to see an NBA game.

``Friday night's really big,'' Rockets CEO Tad Brown said. ``It's really a watershed moment for the development of the game as an international product and of what the NBA is doing to market itself internationally.

"The presence of Yao Ming, and what an international superstar he has become, and this young and very gifted countryman coming to play against him for the first time in the NBA, is very special," Brown said. "Hundreds of millions of people will be watching. It will be a phenomenal sporting experience."

It is not the first time Yao has played against a teammate from the Chinese national squad, having gone against his former China Basketball Association rival Wang ZhiZhi and Mengke Bateer.

But Yi, the sixth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, is the first significant NBA player from China since Yao, and he arrives in town with a passionate and devoted following.

"Here we have two gentlemen, from different regions, Shanghai (Yao) and the Guandong Province (Yi), and who mean so much to this enormous country, with an enormous television market and enormous love for basketball," Stern said. "Now we have the exclamation point."

Networks, Webcasts

The game will be on 19 networks in China, including CCTV-5, Guangdong TV, Guangzhou TV, and ESPN Star Sports in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It also will be available live through two Webcasters.

Though ratings estimates in China are difficult and vary widely, today's game is said to be certain to draw 150 million viewers and could reach 250 million. CCTV-5 alone is available in 210 million households.

Yao's first game against Shaquille O'Neal in 2002 drew an estimated audience of 220 million and the largest cable television ratings in the United States for a regular-season game since the 1995 comeback of Magic Johnson.

"I heard there were close to 200 million people that watched," Yao said. "But come on, in our country, we have (1.3) billion. That's still a small part of it."

Yi's first televised NBA game drew an audience estimated at 100 million, but it went up against a Rockets game that was available on other regional cable networks.

When the Indianapolis Colts played the New England Patriots last Sunday, the average audience during the game was 33.8 million; 66.4 million saw at least a six-minute portion.

The average audience for Super Bowl XLI was 93 million, with 139.8 million seeing at least six minutes. There have been estimates Super Bowls draw a global audience of roughly 150 million.

The audience for tonight's Rockets game, starting on a Saturday morning in China, could exceed the Super Bowl, Colts-Patriots game and the Friday ESPN NBA games combined.

For the Rockets, and by extension for Houston, it will be considered a showcase to the vast Chinese market.

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