D-Wade and Li-Ning. China Hoopas.

Big news on the sneaker front comes in the announcement that Dwyane Wade has left Nike for Chinese sneaker brand Li-Ning. While other NBA players have signed with Chinese sneaker companies, DWade’s signing is clearly something more significant than any of the previous defections to the Great Wall. Is this an anomaly, or a sign of the times?

Clearly Nike remains the sneaker superpower, and this doesn’t really change much for them. Nike remains the market share 800-pound gorilla, and they still can boast the greatest roster of superstars on the planet. They remain the standard bearer.

But this signing is more than an anomaly. It signals two key issues worth taking note of:

1. China is for real. Superstar athletes generally rely on their sneaker company to help build their brands, especially in the US. Nike helped create the iconic brands of MJ, Tiger Woods, LeBron and most athlete icons we’ve seen emerge over the past 20 years. Yes, these guys all had additional sponsors to help create their brands, but Nike was always the cornerstone.

I think Wade’s decision says as much about the growing importance of the Chinese market as it does about his brand preference. Wade realizes that while the US remains critical to his branding, China is just as important. Not coincidentally, this news comes at the same time that T-Mac announced that he is going to play in China next year. Players who are loved in China can earn a tremendous amount of additional revenue, and add years to their revenue producing lifespan. Chinese fans are savvy, and players who pay attention to China are rewarded with fan loyalty and new revenue streams.

2. Li-Ning is for real. In 2008, BDA was involved is a groundbreaking (and foreshadowing) deal between Baron Davis and Li-Ning. That deal was a signal that Li-Ning was a real option for NBA players seeking alternatives to US shoe brands. Other deals quickly followed, and suddenly Chinese sneaker companies like Anta, 361, Peak and Luyou were signing players (especially Rockets-thanks due to Yao Ming) as well.

Just a few years back, many Chinese shoe companies would sign NBA stars and hope for the best. Perhaps they would shoot a TVC and buy some media time. But they were still figuring things out. Li-Ning’s signing of D-Wade signals a quantum leap in their commitment to, and understanding of, the power of aligning with an NBA superstar.

Without having talked to Wade’s people, I’m certain they entered the deal with confidence in Li-Ning’s activation plan. This wasn’t about the money. This was about Wade’s commitment to China, and to helping a new partner move the needle. Li-Ning wouldn’t have landed Wade without a fully developed, strategic marketing program to activate the partnership. This deal is a game changer. Let’s keep an eye on how things develop, but doubters who wrote off all of the Chinese shoe companies may have spoken too soon.

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How The Mighty Fall: Tiger, LeBron, Lance….

A wise man once said “we are our own worst enemy”. Truer words were never spoken. Whether you are a student, a working professional or a superstar athlete, you can probably look in the mirror and see the person that stands in the way of you reaching your true potential. I certainly believe this wisdom applies to me, and most of the people I care for.

Lance Armstrong’s withdrawal from the fight to clear his name against implications of steroids is a very sad moment in sports history. Armstrong’s accomplishments on a bicycle place him light years ahead of any other professional cyclist. His defeat of cancer has inspired millions of people diagnosed with the brutal disease. He is a hero to millions, both as an athlete and as an individual. Which is why the news is so enormous. It rocks the world of professional cycling, and robs many of their inspiration.

Of course there will be many that will stand beside Lance no matter what. And I would never argue with them. As a cancer survivor, and someone who achieved so much after his diagnosis, he has made a tremendous impact on the world. His Livestrong Foundation remains a stellar organization that will do good work for many years to come. So no one can deny the fact that Lance Armstrong did wonderful things in the face of cancer. For that, unless you’ve walked in his shoes, you should applaud him.

What is troubling is that we may never know exactly HOW he did those wonderful things. In fighting cancer, anything goes. There are no rules. If you fight cancer (or AIDS-see “Magic Johnson”), you do whatever it takes. And if you beat it, you are spectacular in your strength and determination. But in sports, no one likes a cheater. If Lance took “performance enhancers”, even as part of his cancer battle, then whatever work he did as an individual gets in large part negated by the fact that he may have “cheated” his way to his numerous Tour De France victories.

If that’s the case, and we may never know, then at some point Lance (or someone around him) perhaps should have put a stop to his racing career. As we have seen with Tiger Woods and LeBron James, the other two icons of the Mount Rushmore of Sports who have fallen, we all want greatness from our heroes, but we also want integrity and honesty.

When I was a kid, sports hero troubles were limited to excessive drinking, womanizing and the occasional locker room brawl. Yes, back then the media shielded bad behavior in order to remain drinking buddies with the icons they covered. But the problems were much more simple. And fans knew the guys were imperfect. Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Magic Johnson, Terry Bradshaw and all the rest were “regular guys”. Athletes today get themselves in trouble when they try to portray themselves as perfect, and then fall from grace. And their issues (steroids, drinking and driving, association with bad dudes) are much more complicated. Fans seem to expect more while athletes deliver less.

I always advise my clients to be authentic. I really think that’s all fans want. We paint our heroes, and they paint themselves, as something they cannot life up to. We reward them for super-human achievements, and don’t want to believe that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Ultimately, their true essence is revealed and we are heartbroken. When you are revered by millions, and make millions for being so exceptional, it must be pretty easy to believe the hype. Ego gets in the way, and athletes themselves can lose track of the difference between who they really are and what the public perception of them is. We may want to believe our heroes are perfect, but the minute they start seeing themselves that way, they are vulnerable to a severe fall from grace.

Somewhere along the way, it seems to me Lance must have lost perspective. No one is bigger than the system. And those of us who love music know that when you meet the devil at the crossroads, the deal he offers you isn’t worth it. We live in the age of transparency. The truth ultimately is revealed. Whether your ego blinds you from the pain you may cause in Cleveland, or you are addicted to sex with women other than your wife, or you take steroids that make you ride faster than anyone, the truth shall be revealed. It’s tragic to see so may icons fall from grace, but that’s the age we live in. And we will always believe in the “next” one. Come on Mike Trout, Andrew Luck and Kevin Durant. Don’t let us down.

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Athletes Are (and always will be) Role Models

I’m in the midst of a week long camping trip on Catalina Island with my 11 year old son. He’s a 1st year Boy Scout and is being challenged like never before. Sleeping outside, riding mountain bikes on 7 mile challenges, rowing canoes for 5 miles, eating camp food. Far from the comforts of Pacific Palisades, CA.

The first night was brutal. He was assigned to a tent with a friend, but the tent was more of a shelter than an actual tent. No walls, just a roof. The camp is notoriously infested with red foxes who rummage through the tents at night looking for random Kit Kat and Snicker bars. Dads and other adults sleep in a different camp. The boys are on their own.

My son was really anxious as bedtime approached. My words of comfort did little good. After several attempts to calm him, I tried something different. I brought up our favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. I asked him how Big Ben and Troy Polomalu might feel on the first day of training camp. He said he thought they might be stressed, knowing the coming week would be really tough. I asked him about all of the time Ben and Troy had put in all of their lives leading up to that moment. About all of the pain, tears, injuries, sacrifices. He started to think about all of the challenges that his heroes had faced in their journeys. He began to feel better and made it through that rough first night.

So as much as I would love to be his role model, that will have to wait until he is older. For now, his role models are Big Ben and Troy P. He worships them. They inspire him. Whether they know it or not, they do the same for thousands of kids all over the country. They are his role models, and I’m grateful that he has them to inspire him.

We are now more than half way through the week on the island. Things are going great. He is having the time of his life, and doing things I never thought I would see him do. Thanks Ben and Troy. I owe you one.

Posted in Athlete marketability, Athlete Marketing, Sports Marketing, Uncategorized | 15 Comments


Is Tebowmania symbolic of U.S. in 2012?

Reprint. Originally Published in Sports Business Journal, January 30, 2012, Page 24

Most of us love sports because at some point in our lives, an athlete performed an act of such heroic proportions that we became sports fanatics for life. That moment sticks with us forever. These personalities drive the popularity of spectator sports. They keep us watching, attending and debating. Recently, we’ve all witnessed the ascent of one of the most interesting athlete icons of our generation. Tebowmania has swept the nation, crossing over beyond the sports pages and into the mainstream. But is Tebowmania a fad, or will Tim Tebow establish himself as an icon with real staying power?

In spite of his college national championships, his Heisman and his well-known devotion to Christianity, it wasn’t long ago that he was just one of many intriguing personalities in sports. But when he took over the starting job in Denver, and led the team to the playoffs, Tebowmania “went viral.” During the Broncos’s 7-4 run, Tebow averaged 150 passing yards per game. Hardly the stuff that legends are made of.

But he captured our imaginations. Whether it was his fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories or his “Tebowing” postgame posture, everyone was talking about him. An improbable thumping of the defending AFC champion Steelers in the first round of the playoffs sent Tebowmania into the stratosphere. The victory resulted in more than 9,000 tweets per second on Twitter. Tebow finished the season as the No. 11 most admired man in the U.S., with the No. 2-selling jersey in the NFL, and the most popular athlete in America in ESPN’s annual poll.

How marketable is he?

Four key components determine athlete marketability. At BDA, we measure athlete marketability as follows: athlete marketability = (talent + success) + (integrity + charisma)

The first two components are on the field, and are listed first because traditionally they carry the most weight. The next two components express the importance of the athlete as an individual. Brands want to affiliate with talented, successful and charismatic spokespeople who their consumers can trust.

In Tebow’s case, talent continues to be the component most questioned by his detractors. Yet his marketability overcomes talent issues because he is so strong in the other critical areas. He is a winner. Above all, however, it is Tim Tebow the person that makes him so appealing to brands. Countless articles on Tebow produce the same descriptives: humble, charming, wholesome, selfless, hardworking, authentic. Brands today are risk-averse when it comes to endorsement deals. Tebow’s success, combined with his character and personality, make him an extremely marketable athlete.

In an August 2010 article, I wrote about the “Tiger Recession” and expressed my belief that in the wake of controversies surrounding Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tiger Woods, brands would focus much more on character than ever before. Brands are insisting that their athlete spokespeople demonstrate character and integrity. Tebow’s well-known humility, generosity and selflessness are exactly what brands are looking for in 2012. Perhaps talent and success mean less to brands today than they used to.

Or maybe it isn’t just about Tebow. Perhaps Tebowmania is indicative of America in 2012. People have been kicked around by unemployment, shrinking retirement accounts and disappearing equity in their homes. Tebow has been kicked around, too. In spite of it, he stays focused, humble and faithful. In a way, he represents many Americans trying to fight on in the face of very challenging times. Perhaps we are shifting away from our obsession with wealth and glamour. If the country is indeed moving toward “regular guy” heroes, then Tebow will likely become an athlete icon with real staying power.

Tebow’s outspoken devotion to Christianity makes him polarizing, generally something brands try to avoid. Yet somehow he doesn’t come across as preachy. His faith doesn’t seem to bother Jockey, Nike or FRS, and I think more brands will jump aboard. And Tebow will absolutely need to continue winning to maintain his stratospheric marketability. Regardless of his success, I believe Tebow has established himself as a public figure who brands will have interest in associating with for many years to come.

Bill Sanders (bsanders@bdasports.com) is chief marketing officer at BDA Sports Management and author of the blog “An Athlete Marketing Guy” at http://www.athletemarketingguy.com.

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It’s All About The Organization

It’s easy to feel compassion for the plight of the small market team. Fewer potential  ticket buyers, fewer potential sponsors, smaller TV audience, departing superstars. How does a small market compete against their big city rivals?

Last year’s NBA and NFL lockouts focused on the issue. New revenue sharing arrangements were supposed to help small markets play on more equal footing, allowing them to spend equivalent money on player salaries in spite of lower revenues. In the NBA, the new arrangement did nothing to prevent superstar players from bolting out of small markets as soon as they could. Seemed like nothing, not even CBA rules directly addressing the issue, could prevent big market teams from having a huge advantage.

But if you ignore the sensationalist stories about CP3, Melo, Lebron and Amare all bolting for the bright lights of the big city, you find something completely surprising. Look at the standings in the NBA today. On Feb 2, 2012, the teams playing above .500 include: Oklahoma, San Antonio, Houston, Denver, Portland, Utah, Memphis and Indiana. In the meantime, the star studded New York Knicks are 8-13. The NFL is no different. This year, two big city teams (NY and NE) square off in the Super Bowl. But last year, it was PIT and GB. In Major League Baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals are the current World Series Champs. Market size seems much less relevant that we might think.

Far more interesting to me is the fact that organizations that win tend to do so perennially. The Spurs (NBA), Cardinals (MLB) and Steelers (NFL) are always good. The Denver Nuggets appeared to be doomed when Melo left. But today they are just 3 games out of first place in their division. When this year’s NFL playoffs began, 8 of the 10 teams that qualified had previously won at least 1 Super Bowl. By conference championship weekend, each of the remaining 4 teams had previously won the big one at least once, with three of the 4 having won multiple Lombardi’s.

Yes, superstars win championships. Few teams that win it all do so without at least one legitimate superstar. But superstars come and go. Montana, Bradshaw, Favre, Staubach, Magic and Bird all retired, yet their organizations went on to win championships without them.

It’s not about market size. It’s not about superstars. It’s about the organization. Winning organizations find a way to win regardless of roster or market. They win because of outstanding decisions, responsible salary cap management, great coaching, front office consistency and dedication to a team philosophy that doesn’t change. Check out what is happening in Denver, Portland and Utah this year in the NBA. Each team has lost superstars recently, but they continue winning. Small market teams: stop whining. Focus instead on the organization. Look in the mirror. Great management and great corporate environment matters more than things like market size. Winning is in your hands. Market size is beyond your control, but it is not critical to success.



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NFL Experience…Not So Fantastic.

Last Monday, I was up in the Bay Area on business. My 10 year old son was on Christmas break, so he was with me on the trip. As die-hard Steeler fans, it was a no brainer to try and grab tickets to the Steelers/49ers game at Candlestick Park. Monday Night Football, two 10-3 teams fighting for playoff position, it was bound to be a classic. And it was to be my son’s first NFL game. I made a few calls and lucked out. 2 tickets in the lower bowl. A monumental occasion, a boy’s first NFL game. Father and Son. The stuff great memories are made of.

Only it didn’t turn out that way. Of course our experience would have been better had the Steelers won (or even put up a fight). But with Big Ben on one wheel and playing on the road, I prepared my son for a likely loss. What made the experience so brutal wasn’t the Steelers performance on the field. It was the fan experience at the stadium.

Although broadcast and sponsor revenue are critical to all major pro leagues, stadium revenue is arguably most important. A full stadium drives ticket sales as well as revenue from parking, concessions and merchandise. And a packed house gives the home team critical home field/court advantage. Here’s the thing: happy fans spend more money. Happy fans make more noise. Happy fans become repeat customers.

Which is what really blew me away about our Candlestick experience. It seemed that Candlestick really doesn’t care a lick about fan experience.

We planned to arrive at the game in plenty of time to check out tailgating, grab some food, watch pre-game warmups. Remembering the old days when my dad and I used to go to LA Raider games, I decided to leave plenty of time to get into the parking lot.

Getting to the game was brutal. The last 3 miles took us over an hour. Bottlenecked traffic, SUV’s turning right from the left lane, and left from the right lane. Three lanes total leading into crammed parking lots. Sadly, getting into a stadium hasn’t changed much since the 80’s.

Then there was the will call line, which took another 30 minutes. Finally tickets in hand, we waited another half hour to get through security and into the stadium. Every single fan was patted down by slow moving, unmotivated part-time security guys. Fans grew impatient and irate. That’s no way to welcome customers into your building. If it weren’t for the now famous power outage, no way would we have made kickoff.

Inside the stadium was no better. Food lines were ridiculous. Choices were very limited. My son had fries and a large Sprite for dinner. I waited in line 20 minutes for a cold burger served on a frozen bun. And as we waited in line, a nasty fight broke out between obviously hammered 49er and Steeler fans. My son was shocked and frightened. I had to shield him and then calm him down. The fight lasted at least 5 minutes, and security never showed up.

We left the game with 5:00 left, hoping to beat the crowd. 45 minutes later, we were still fighting our way back to the freeway. On the way out, countless drunk fans spotted our Steeler gear. We were cursed at, had beer thrown at us, and got flipped off several times. I expect some of this, but as the father of a 10 year old, I guess I’m getting conservative. I felt like I had put my son in a situation that he wasn’t ready for.

I can’t comprehend why the NFL allows this kind of experience to happen. Shouldn’t franchises be held to certain standards? Every Starbucks in the world has customer experience standards. Why don’t sports teams? I know Candlestick is a dump waiting for the demolition ball, but things like crowd control, efficient security and decent food don’t require a new stadium. Teams that neglect fan experience not only hurt their own bottom line, but they damage the reputation of the entire league.

The NFL is the most popular and successful professional league on the planet. It’s absurd that the live experience for some fans still leaves so much to be desired.

Posted in Athlete Marketing, Sports Business, Sports Marketing, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

MJ and the Transition Game

I owe my professional career to Michael Jordan. As does everyone even remotely involved in basketball. Whether you are a player, a fan, an executive, an agent or a hot dog vendor, your interest in 21st century basketball is all due to MJ. Yes, many legends came before him. But MJ took the game to a completely new level. His performance, both on and off the court, took everything that his predecessors did to a completely different level. He won rings, scoring titles and MVP trophies. He redefined what it meant to be an athlete spokesperson. Even today, athletes compare their marketing careers to MJ’s, and they pale in comparison. MJ invigorated modern basketball and invented modern athlete endorsements. So we really do owe it all to him.

Which is why I’m so intrigued by MJ 2011. It isn’t always easy to transition away from the big stage, but Michael had it pretty good. Jordan Brand is iconic, and arguably the best athlete/sponsor partnership in sports history. But enjoying the success of the Jordan Brand and playing golf probably gets a bit boring after a while, so MJ stays active in the business of basketball.

I scratch my head each time I see a Hanes commercial. I don’t see the brand fit, at least not from his perspective. I can’t help but feel that pitching underwear is beneath His Airness. Now, amidst the brutally ugly NBA lockout, MJ has taken a stand. But it isn’t the stand that many people expected. As one of the highest paid professional athletes in NBA history, as a guy who was paid $30 million PER YEAR the last two season of his career, you would imagine that he would understand where the players were coming from. During his playing days, there’s no way MJ would have stood for a reduction to 50% of basketball related income for the players. Yet now, as an owner, MJ has positioned himself as an NBA hardliner. Funny how true the old saying is: “where you stand depends on where you sit”. As a player, MJ earned as much as he could, and arguably much less than he was really worth. As an owner, MJ wants to limit player salaries as much as possible.

Jordan is completely entitled to take this position. He is an owner, and he should make decisions that are in the best interest of his team. However the fallout, which does not appear on a balance sheet, is how players of the present and future generation will feel about him. They will likely always respect his game, but they are also likely to feel betrayed by him. Today Stephon Marbury, not exactly one to manage his own image all that well, called MJ a “sell out”. Rough words about the guy who once walked on water in the eyes of just about every hoop junkie on the planet.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. As with most issues impacted by the lockout, the fallout is likely to be worse than many participants anticipate. We’ll see. What’s your take?

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Manny Pacquiao Loves Bingo?

I really like Manny Pacquiao. He seems to be an athlete who understands how to use his platform (boxing) to launch a brand that will last well beyond his athletic career. You’ve got to give credit to a boxer who establishes himself as a household name in a foreign country (the US) and in a sport that’s way past its prime. Not only has Manny made a name for himself, but he has conveyed a message that he is a likable and charming guy. His spot for the HP Touchpad  is one of the best examples of athlete marketing that I’ve seen in a long time.

Rumor on the street is that Manny has a very disjointed management team. He’s one of those athletes who are often rumored to be “in play” among athlete marketing people. That always scares me, especially when I hear it about an athlete who seems to have had his/her share of decent deals. Athletes who fire good marketing people usually don’t have a good sense of their own marketability.

What really blew me away was Manny’s ad for San Miguel Casino. The ad is terrible. To me it screams of “they paid me to do this”. There is no clear connection between Manny and this casino, and the ad is really cheesy. The ad is enormous, and hangs right above the exit in Terminal One (Southwest) at LAX. I’m 100% certain that this is not the only location where this ad is on display. A recent LA Times article stated that almost 60 million passengers a year travel through LAX. Terminal One has got to be their busiest terminal, so you’ve got to figure that at least 15 million people pass through that terminal in a year. That’s a ton of impressions for a single ad. You can do a lot of damage to a brand with a single billboard in a single location.

I do not believe that “there is no such thing as bad exposure”. Ads make enormous contributions to athlete brands. They either build athlete brands (as does the HP ad) or they cheapen them (the San Miguel Casino ad). Athletes and their representatives need to be very selective in choosing endorsement partners. I’m reminded of Tiger Woods and Buick, or Michael Jordan and Hoffy Hot Dogs. Zero connection between an athlete and the brand he represents only tells consumers that the athlete did it for the money. Athletes and representatives who take any deal they can get end up costing themselves big in the long run. Come on Manny, you can do better.

Posted in Athlete marketability, Athlete Marketing, Manny Pacquiao, Sports Marketing | 3 Comments

Xie Xie Yao Ming

Yao and Me

It’s a pretty somber day here at BDA. Although we have known it was coming for quite some time, Yao Ming’s retirement press conference took place yesterday and the reality of it all is finally sinking in. As usual, Yao handled himself with exceptional dignity and grace. Typical Yao. He spoke little of himself, instead expressing his gratitude to those who helped and supported him on the way. He also tried to make us all feel a bit better by talking about how when doors close, others open. He said he would still be around, that he wasn’t going to disappear. I know all of this is true, but I can’t help but feel a bit blue today. Since we have plenty of very exciting Yao projects in the fire, and our relationship with him has a long way to go, I’m not quite clear why I’m down. I guess it is the reminder that sometimes things don’t work out the way we would like them to.

It seems like yesterday that Bill Duffy took me to China for the first time. It was 2000, and we attended opening night of the 2000/2001 CBA season. The Bayi Rockets faced off against the Shanghai Sharks. The Rockets were reigning CBA champions, and were led by superstar Wang Zhi Zhi. BDA was getting ready to sign Wang, but we were also there to meet the tall skinny kid, Yao Ming. That night, Yao completely dominated. He drained long jumpers, blocked countless shots, made pinpoint cross-court passes and scored at will. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Yao's ESPN "Next" shoot. That's Bill Duffy holding up the light.

The next day, Yao had a shoot for ESPN’s “NEXT” issue. We spent several days with him. I was taken by his humility, his shyness and his kind nature. He seemed so gentle. But he was also clearly not comfortable in his own skin yet. He didn’t smile for pictures, and often walked with his head a bit low in an attempt to get closer to those around him. In hindsight, Yao probably already had an idea of what the coming years would hold for him.

One thing was clear right out of the gate. Yao was not in this for the fame. Or the money. Yao showed a sense of obligation to his country, his family and his team that he carried throughout his career. In the early years, I sometimes wondered that if Yao wouldn’t rather be 6’4″. Yao saw himself as a basketball player who was obligated to deliver for others. He wasn’t in it for himself.

Another Serious Cover

Yao and his Shanghai Sharks eventually won the CBA championship, and his road to the NBA cleared. His first year was a whirlwind. #1 draft pick, magazine covers, national ads, autobiography, movie. It was nuts. It was also a critical year for me professionally, as Yao helped me build relationships and develop experience that I still rely on almost 10 years later. But that’s not what I remember most about that time. What I remember most is Yao taking it all in stride. The world around him was insane, but he kept his composure. I wondered if fame and fortune would change Yao at all. It did not. To this day, Yao is better at returning phone calls than anyone I’ve ever worked with.

Business Week Cover. Still no smile.

When Yao arrived in the US, most “experts” said he would not be marketable. He was painted as a tall, awkward, Chinese speaking foreigner. But my instinct was that the experts were wrong. Yao’s character, intelligence and sense of humor are remarkable, and something told me that he would emerge as a marketing icon. I honestly had no idea just how big he would become, but I knew he was special. The public loves good guys, and Yao was emerging as one of the best. His press conferences became legendary, as Yao found humor in the fact that throngs of reporters wanted to know every last detail of his NBA experience. People started to fall in love with him. Apple, Visa, Gatorade, Pepsi, T-Mobile and Coke did not align with Yao because he was tall. They aligned with him because he was charming, and because he was captivating people all over the world.

Talent and hard work (not just Chinese voters) made Yao an All Star

We all survived the first year, and Yao seemed to breathe a bit easier as we walked him to security at SFO for his flight back to China. He eventually found his groove, both on and off the court. His on court performance improved dramatically, as did his off court demeanor. At Thanksgiving time during his second NBA season, a reporter asked “Yao, what are you thankful for this year?”. Yao replied, “LeBron James”. LeBron’s arrival had shifted some of the attention away from Yao, which was perfectly fine with him.

Team China meant everything to Yao.

The following years a pattern emerged that possibly ended up shortening Yao’s career. As soon as each NBA season ended, Yao was on a plane back to China to report to the Chinese National Team. While every other NBA player took time off, Yao reported to Team China training camp to prepare for summer competition. Whether it was Olympics, World Championships or Asian Championships, Yao dutifully put in his time with his home country team. Others saw it as a burden, but Yao saw it as his duty. He felt he owed it to his country to play for the national team. When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, we all new that Yao would not be taking time off to rest and heal that summer, and that he would likely return from injury prematurely in order to play in those games. During those years, I believe Yao played more basketball than any other human on the planet. Perhaps all of that time on the court led to the injuries that eventually ended his career. But would Yao do it differently if he could? Would he have skipped the Beijing Olympics to prolong his NBA career? I seriously doubt it.

My favorite Yao photo. Thank you Andy Bernstein!

The past several years have been challenging for all of us. Seeing Yao repeatedly suffer broken bones, followed by very intense rehab, followed by repeated setbacks, had us fearing that the writing was on the wall. Those of us around Yao so deeply admired the boundless effort he put into recovery that we wanted more than anything to see Yao win championships, reach his full basketball potential, and enjoy a long career. But something funny happened the first time Yao talked about the possibility of retirement. He seemed at ease. Of course he desperately wanted to come back, but he also seemed very content in his personally life. He was now married (to the equally wonderful Ye Li) and was the father of his beautiful daughter, Amy. He was a family man. I believe it was the first time in Yao’s life that he really started to think about what HE wanted. He had given over 15 years of his life completely to others, first the Sharks, then the Chinese National Team and finally to the Houston Rockets and the NBA. He did it not only without complaint, but did it graciously. He gave them all everything he had. He gave them 100%. Yao’s coaches and teammates all agree, he is the hardest working basketball player they’ve ever know. His work ethic is simply unmatched. After many years of hard work, the possibility of life after basketball became real. Finally, the thought of a life that he created and controlled probably sounded pretty interesting.

We will never know how dominant Yao would have been over a 15+ year NBA career. I do believe he would have gone down as perhaps the most dominant center the game has ever seen. He was the complete package, and when healthy he was an absolute force. But that was not Yao’s destiny. Instead, his destiny was to establish basketball as the most popular sport in China, and thus, the world. He carried the flag and the torch. He captured the hearts of basketball fans all over the world. He inspired people with his hard work and his warm heart. The ultimate lesson he taught us is that you can give it 100% and live with the results. Sometimes you don’t win the trophy. Sometimes you don’t get to play as long as you want to. But if you do it with dedication, dignity, grace and humility, you can walk away with your head held high.

Yao Ming

Today, Yao Ming smiles. He smiles a lot. And he doesn’t slouch when he walks. Not only is he no longer shy, but his charm dominates the room when he enters. And he has big plans. He wants to study business, become an entrepreneur,  establish the Sharks as the best franchise in the world. He’ll do it all, and much more. And he’ll also immerse himself into family life. Yes, we are a bit blue today. But Yao Ming is happy. And we have a very bright future ahead together.

Xie Xie Yao Ming. It has been an honor to be a part of this adventure. I look forward to whatever lies ahead.

Posted in Athlete marketability, Athlete Marketing, Uncategorized, Yao Ming | 11 Comments

Lockout Blues

July 1 brought the inevitable and dreaded NBA lockout that we all feared but knew was coming. Suddenly, two of the “big 3” look more like Washington DC than world class sports leagues. And much like DC, progress won’t be made without major concessions on both sides. Nothing should be “off the table”. It’s a major game of chicken, and no one wants to blink, but without compromise we are indeed headed towards armageddon.

In the case of the NBA, my biggest fear is that both sides rely too much on the last lockout to gauge the potential fallout of this version. The last lockout was over 10 years ago. Times have changed dramatically since then, and anyone who takes fan loyalty for granted in the 21st century is a fool. Fans today have a plethora of options when it comes to leisure time and discretionary spending. When my father was a kid, he spent his summer days listening to baseball games on the radio from his front porch. It was indeed “the national pastime”. When I was a kid, I watched the NFL and the NBA on TV. My 21st century son barely watches sports, and when he does he is simultaneously playing video games on his handheld device. And adults today have thousands of channels on TV, the internet and countless other activities to fill their time. If the NBA loses a season due to a lockout, no one should assume that the fans won’t find other things to do with their time. Fan loyalty, the golden goose of sports, is more fragile than many people believe.

In the case of the NBA, the gap between the union and the league feels enormous to me. We can debate the numbers, but it’s apparent that the league has endured some amount of loss during the recent recession years. On the heels of one of the best seasons in years (in terms of attendance and ratings), I imagine the league wishes the CBA had expired sooner. Regardless, we’re in the midst of a standoff. Here are the key issues that I think need to get addressed:

1. Revenue Sharing. The bulk of the losses are generated by small market and poorly run teams. There’s no way the Lakers and the Timberwolves are on the same page on this issue. If covering losses is the key issue, then profitable teams from mega-markets are going to have to subsidize smaller market teams. No way Sacramento can ever compete with New York. Teams rely on ticket sales, local broadcast and sponsorships to generate revenue. Expecting SAC to compete with NYC is like asking me to enter the dunk contest.

2. Contraction. This ties to issue #1. Every bricks and mortar business under the sun closes locations that aren’t profitable. Leagues are loathe to do that, but it may be unavoidable if the losses reported are even remotely accurate. Either through contraction or relocation, a few of the teams deepest in the red need to go.

3. Parity. I’ve said before that parity is a mirage. Small markets are not on an even playing field with big markets. Hard salary caps won’t help much, as they’ll simply guarantee deeper profits for big market teams. Small market teams can only compete when they are managed and marketed effectively (see San Antonio and OKC). Yes, some small market teams made the playoffs, but the big market teams made the finals, and almost always win the title.

4. Cake. I believe the NBA is in a situation where they want to “have their cake and eat it too”. The league is going to need to make a choice between limiting salaries and limiting free agency. If the Denver Nuggets can’t offer Carmelo Anthony much more than other teams, he is likely to bolt to a place where he has roots and feels he can improve his quality of life. If small market teams aren’t allowed to pay their top guys fair market value, they’ll all head to bigger markets, warmer weather, etc and the NBA will look a lot more like baseball. Say goodbye to parity.

4. Guaranteed contracts. The sacred cow on our side of the fence. The challenge with the current system is that teams locked into long term contracts with injured players (TMac, Michael Redd, etc) are basically eliminated from championship contention on opening night. The league wants non-guaranteed contracts, but my view is that bigger salary cap exceptions for injured guys is the better solution. Insurance policies provide some relief as well. The rest of the world allows for guaranteed contracts, so pro leagues should too. There’s probably a reasonable compromise available here, but eliminating guarantees isn’t one of them.

Bottom line is that neither side wants to appear weak, and without compromise on both sides we are doomed. A lost season will likely result in diminished fan loyalty that might never be recovered. Fans have many choices these days. Let’s not take them for granted.

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