July 12th, 2011
06:48 AM GMT
Hong Kong (CNN) – China loves the NBA – or at least it used to.
With the news that China’s basketball icon Yao Ming plans to announce his retirement from the NBA on July 20, a once burgeoning Chinese basketball market may soon be at risk.
According to Monday poll on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site, 57% of those surveyed said they would stop watching the NBA after Yao's retirement.
And for the NBA – a league facing a lockout spurred by seemingly irreconcilable differences between its players and owners – the exodus of China’s loyal NBA fan base could be devastating.
China is currently the largest market for the NBA outside the U.S., drawing on average 30 million viewers per week. China also accounts for about half of the NBA’s international revenue, according to NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.
But those figures were dwarfed in 2007, when the league drew more than 100 million Chinese television viewers for the first meeting between Yao and then Milwaukee Bucks rookie Yi Jianlian.
Despite a ballooning interest in basketball, there is no doubt that Yao was the centerpiece of the NBA’s allure in China.
His personal brand is valued at more than $1 billion, the AFP reported, and is consistently supported by endorsement deals and regular media appearances. Yao also routinely tops Forbes’ list of China’s most valuable celebrities, making numerous television appearances and serving as a judge on China’s Got Talent.
As of now, there is no heir apparent to China’s basketball throne.
And with essentially just one remaining Chinese national in the NBA, Yi (whose option was not picked up by the Washington Wizards before the lockout), it’s difficult to predict whether the league will maintain its popularity in the world’s most populous nation.
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