During last season's All-Star festivities in Toronto, I sat in a hotel ballroom alongside a who's who of basketball royalty and dignitaries as the finalists for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame were announced.
Most of the fuss was reserved for Shaq and Allen Iverson, and deservedly so. But my thoughts were equally drawn to the biggest man on the stage, Yao Ming.
Yao was inducted not only for his performances as a player, but also for the magnitude of contributions to the international commerce of the game as well.
There are over 300 million people registered to play basketball in China. To give you a sense of the enormity of that figure, the TOTAL United States population is currently estimated to be around 326 million. It's no wonder that, with the game's colossal popularity and growth potential, China is the most important international business market for the NBA right now.
The game behind the game, especially from the commercial and overall industry perspective, fascinates me. And that is why the recent announcement that Nike's Jordan Brand has signed its first-ever Chinese basketball player in Guo Ailun, a 24-year-old rising star who currently plays for the Lianoing Flying Leopards of the CBA, is worth taking note of.
In 1987, NBA commissioner David Stern, in another example of why he's the most visionary businessman to head a professional sports league, came to China offering the rights to China Central Television, the predominant state television broadcaster in the People's Republic, to broadcast live games for free.
The NBA was the first American media company to penetrate the Chinese market and broadcast live there. For all of you that think the NBA is merely a pro basketball league, please read the previous sentence and think about that for a second. They did something that the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook have been unable to do, and they did it 30 years ago.
As more television outlets began to emerge, the league was in a prime position to flip some incredibly lucrative and ground-breaking deals. They also utilized the explosive potential of the Internet by providing live in-game statistics in Simplified Chinese.
Jeffrey Towson, a professor of Asia investments at Peking University, said in a 2016 Wired article that the moment that shook and recalibrated the business model occurred when Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming went to the NBA, which engendered a "consumer phenomenon".
With the arrival of social media, the game changed yet again. The NBA's Weibo account, which is the Chinese version of Twitter, now has over 32 million followers. And with the proliferation of the mobile Internet and the league's partnerships with the country's reigning tech companies, you can't find a mobile phone in China that does not have NBA content on it in some form or fashion.
Brand Jordan's signing of Guo Ailun arrives as the brand celebrates 20 years in the Chinese market. Guo isn’t the first to be signed to a major brand, as Ming and Yi Jianlian signed with Reebok and Nike, respectively, upon entering the NBA.
But Guo's current deal might have some much larger ramifications and long-term importance in the shoe game.
Guo's name started percolating in international hoops circles seven years ago after being the leading scorer at the 2010 U-17 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. The 6-foot-4 combo guard plays with a competitive fire that disallows him from backing down to anyone. Like Jordan, his mentality is to score mercilessly on you, but he can also facilitate for others when need be.
In order to be a Jordan Brand ambassador, you have to have some unique funk and flavor to your game in a way that translates well in the marketing game, and Guo fits the bill.
He rocks with some flash and has a sweet skill set when it comes to handling the ball, faking out the man guarding him and also being adept at effortlessly changing speeds and direction. He was once referred to as the Chinese Allen Iverson, and many view him as the best guard prospect to emerge from his homeland.
Ming is now the head of the Chinese Basketball Association. He represents the recent greatness and the watershed moment in his country's basketball history.
Right now, Guo is the future. And with Brand Jordan, he's telling the world's biggest market to come fly with him in this next stage of the game's overseas growth.