A friend of mine in the US recently asked me if the Rockets were still big in China without Yao Ming.
My immediate reaction was to say yes, of course they are. China's love affair with basketball and the NBA is all-consuming and the team Chinese people seem to overwhelmingly support is the Houston Rockets.
But glancing at the broadcast schedule for NBA games on CCTV-5, which usually shows about four games per week, you can't help but notice a decided downturn in the number of Rockets games shown nationally since Yao got injured.
In January, for example, when Yao was playing some of the best basketball of his career, CCTV showed six Rockets games, more than a third of its total NBA broadcasts for that month. Compare that to March and April when CCTV will broadcast a total of only four Rockets games - barely an eighth of all games scheduled - and it starts to seem as if the national sports network senses fans have grown ambivalent about Houston sans Yao.
Not so, says popular CCTV commentator Zhang Weiping. Although he admits CCTV has tweaked its schedule slightly since Yao went down, ratings have stayed steady for the Rockets games that are shown and for NBA games overall. Zhang says there is no question that Chinese fans are Rocket fans, and no gimpy superstar will change that.
"It's been six years (since Yao joined Houston) and Chinese think of the Rockets as their home team," he said. "No matter who plays for them, (fans) still care."
Now with a more diverse TV schedule, Chinese fans can watch and learn about some other NBA teams they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to see - something CCTV no doubt believes is crucial if it is to sustain its ratings. The playoffs tip off near the end of April and usually last well into June. With no Chinese faces to draw viewers in this year, CCTV needs to flesh out its NBA fan base if it hopes to retain eyeballs into some of those grueling seven-game series, which can test the patience of even the most die-hard basketball fans.
Zhang says most people realize the Rockets won't make it very far in the playoffs this year, but he says fans have already adopted surrogate teams to follow in the postseason. He says people really like the Suns' quick pace and itchy 3-ball trigger fingers. The reigning champion Spurs are always a favorite, as are the new-and-improved Celtics. But he thinks Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are China's second favorite team, and they have supplanted Houston as the most-shown team on CCTV.
If the Bucks were half decent, they would probably be China's next favorite team. But no one wants to support a loser. Yi has a long way to go before he convinces local fans that his teammates are worth cheering for even if he's not there. But for now, it seems, with the Rockets on the wane, China chooses Kobe.
Source: China Daily