The NBA recently held its first NBA Chinese New Year Celebration, which featured a game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Jan. 27.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
The NBA opened its 2011-12 season with the phrase Big Things Are Coming.

At the same time, one of its biggest players was already gone, as for the first time since 2002-03, Chinese star Yao Ming was no longer an NBA player, retiring due to repeated foot and ankle injuries.

But even without their national hero playing among the greatest players in the world, the popularity of the NBA and the game of basketball continue to grow at a rapid pace in China.

“Yao was a transformational player, who did so much for the game of basketball in China and outside of China,” said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker. “He was really a catalyst back when he was drafted in 2002 to a whole new generation of fans, who grew a great interest in watching NBA basketball.

“The interesting thing though is that over the course of that time, this generation of fans has developed a real sophistication for our game, so the popularity of NBA basketball, thanks in large part to Yao, is far greater than one player or one team.”

"I may have retired from the NBA in 2011, but it's clear to me that the NBA is as popular as ever (in China), led by today's superstars like Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Tim Duncan,” said Yao.

Today, more fans in China are watching games than ever before. Last season there were 1,300 games available in China on television, online and on mobile devices. But the fans still wanted more. So far this season, viewership of live games on CCTV5 -- China Central Television’s all-sports channel -- is up 39 percent compared to the same period last season.

"We are now in the 25th year of our partnership to broadcast NBA games to fans across China. As shown by the early season 2012 ratings, NBA basketball is still among the most popular games aired on CCTV and very important to our fans. We look forward to working with the NBA to bring fans more authentic and exciting NBA coverage for years to come,” said CCTV5 President Jiang Heping.

The NBA recently concluded its first NBA Chinese New Year Celebration, a week-long event that featured a 21-game broadcast schedule on television and digital platforms that reached 96 million viewers and concluded with a standing room only viewing party that brought together fans, partners and celebrities in Beijing.

“It was a resounding success for us in the inaugural year and something that we really look forward to continuing,” said Shoemaker. “We had some record-breaking TV audiences. For the first time, we had eight straight days of national television coverage on CCTV5 and averaged close to 10 million fans watching each of those games.”

It doesn’t stop with watching games on television. The NBA has expanded its reach online, where page views to NBA.com/China and the NBA section of Sina.com -- an important news and information portal in China -- saw a 43 percent increase last year. Social media was no different, where the NBA is the No. 1 sport in China with over 41 million combined followers on Sina and Tencent micro-blogs – the equivalents of Twitter in the United States. The trend continues all the way to the clothes on people’s backs, as NBA merchandising has quadrupled in the last three seasons and can be found in over 25,000 retail locations.

The biggest indicator of the sport’s popularity, however, can be seen by the number of kids and adults playing the game throughout the country. There are a staggering 300 million people that play basketball in China, a statistic provided by the Chinese Basketball Association, which is roughly the size of the entire population of the United States.

“The fact is the sport has become endemic,” said Joe Ravitch, former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, and co-founder of The Raine Group, a merchant bank focused on entertainment, digital media and sports. “When you go there now people are playing it, people know about it, people ask you about it, you see the kids playing in the street.

“You’re going to drive in from the airport, and you feel like you’re in New York City, you’re going to pass an area where there’s hoops up and people and playing basketball.”

While television, digital and merchandise success is paramount to the business, the primary focus of NBA China continues to be basketball development within the country, an effort that the league has been committed to for over 30 years, according to Shoemaker.

“We’re doing more and more to grow the game of basketball,” he said. “We’re collaborating with the Chinese Basketball Association on coaching programs that have already trained more than 200 coaches, with referee exchanges and we just built a basketball school in collaboration with the CBA in the south of China, so we’re doing our best to work with the local governing body to find the great Chinese basketball talent.”

The CBA Donnguan Basketball School -- an NBA Training Center opened in November of 2011 and provides comprehensive basketball training and education from NBA coaches for elite players ages 12-17.

“It’s the first school of its kind globally for the NBA, we’ve never done anything like it in the world,” said Shoemaker.

While Shoemaker says there is no way to replace a unique talent like Yao Ming, he does believe China will produce many NBA players in the years to come.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll have other Chinese players in the NBA in the future,” he said. “There is way too much talent, way too interest and way too much desire to play basketball at the highest levels in this country. We’ve seen athletic success in other sports, in particular the Olympic sports, so I think it’s just a matter of time.”

But, even if years go by before another Chinese player makes a big impact in the NBA, neither Shoemaker nor Ravitch foresee the interest in the NBA and the game of basketball waning in China.

“I think it is going to continue to grow because basketball is now a local sport,” Ravitch said. “When teenagers are playing basketball, they’re going to want to have heroes, they’re going to want to wear jerseys of the guys who they think are cool, they’re going to want to watch the best players play on TV, they’re going to want to play video games with their heroes.”

And they want to see their heroes as well. Chris Grancio, the Global Head of Sports Marketing for adidas Basketball, has witnessed the affect that players such as Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose can have during a visit to China.

“The China market loves superstars and we’ve had a tremendous amount of success in bringing over Derrick and Dwight to really engage with fans and build new fans,” he said.

“If you’ve ever been around Dwight Howard, he is such a dynamic personality, when he walks down the streets of China, when he shows up to an event he’s winning fans over instantly with his personality and his approach to it.”

“The pandemonium around Yao, Kobe, Derrick and Dwight Howard is beyond rock-star level,” added Shoemaker. “It’s somewhat polite, but it’s still pandemonium.”

Ravitch recalls taking a commuter flight from Beijing to Shanghai, where, just before take-off, Yao Ming was escorted onto the plane. Ravitch watched as everybody in business class approached asking for an autograph or a photo of the basketball icon.

“The thing about Yao is he hasn’t retired and disappeared into a life of seclusion,” said Shoemaker. “When he announced his retirement he said he’s fully committed to growing the game of basketball and growing it in China.

“That’s music to my ears. I’ve got the basketball icon in China who says I want to work toward continuing the growth of the game of basketball. What more can I want?”