Yao’s Shanghai slamdunk

NBA star buys struggling Chinese basketball team. What’s his gameplan?

Yao’s Shanghai slamdunk

His foot still hurts...

“Boss Yao” is back in town. That’s the spin on news that 7ft 6in Houston Rocket’s center Yao Ming is hanging out in his native Shanghai for the start of the new China Basketball Association (CBA) season.

Cue dutiful responses from the local media commending the prodigal son for returning to his home club. That’s when they take a break from speculating on the likely height of Yao’s first-born child, who will also be arriving soon. The current money is on a final height of 2.246 metres (if it’s a boy), which is just a sliver shorter than Yao himself.

Yao isn’t actually playing for the Shanghai Sharks. He continues to face a lengthy injury lay off from his professional career in the United States, six months since he underwent reconstructive surgery on his left foot. There has been speculation that the injury may be career threatening.

In the meantime, he needs something to do: one reason, perhaps, for his purchase of an ownership stake in the Sharks.

In fact, there is continued speculation on the terms of the deal, and whether it has really gone through on the terms originally outlined (in which Yao was to buy full control of the club). Some speculate he ended up paying around $3 million for the club but others say that the current owners (the Sharks is a state-owned enterprise) are looking to bid up the price by selling their shares to additional third parties.

And then there are those that claim that this deal was always in the pipeline as a ‘thank you’ fee to the administrators at his former team, who allowed Yao to head off for the riches of the NBA in the first place.

Still, Yao’s back for now and he’s been turning up at games on his crutches to cheer his team on. His new role keeps him in the media eye, of course, which will make his sponsors a little happier during his period on the sidelines.

But Yao prefers to talk about his emotional bond with the Shanghai club, for whom both he and his father played. He started his career with the Sharks in 1997, leading the team to the China Basketball Association championship in 2002, before being selected by the Houston Rockets as the number one pick in the NBA draft the same year.

Yao has used his North American connections, and brought in a US head coach and a couple of former NBA players. And with their new owner sitting in the stands, the team has started the season quite nicely, with a 7 to 3 win-loss record. That compares well with recent seasons for the Sharks. In 2008 they hit rock bottom with 43 losses and only 6 wins.

Such miserable results led to crisis last year, when Xiyang Group, a local fertiliser firm footing most of the Sharks’ expenses, quit as sponsor in disgust, citing the team’s “hopeless” record.

For a moment it looked like the team would fold completely. Then Yao stepped in to take on the running costs of Rmb20 million ($2.92 million) a year, according to China Business News. Yao can more than afford it for a while, of course. But few of China’s professional basketball teams manage to turn a profit. According to data released last year by the CBA, only one team – Guangdong Hongyuan – made it into the black.

Maybe Yao can do something about that. Since his involvement was announced, attendances are up at Shark games. CCTV has also reported that TV viewer numbers have started out well ahead of last year. “Boss Yao” is already paying dividends, it seems.

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