July 12th, 2011
06:48 AM GMT
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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.

An estimated 300 million people in China play basketball, opening up the door for marketing ventures such as NBA China, valued at roughly $2.3 billion, according to a Goldman Sachs report.

The popularity of the sport is also evident amongst China’s social media users. On Sina Weibo, the NBA has 4.35 million fans – almost two times as many followers as it does on Twitter.

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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soundoff (18 Responses)
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    July 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  2. James

    I live in china and play basketball all the time here. At the universities, no one likes Yao very much. Everyone loves kobe and the Heat, in fact, i've accidently taken quite a few pictures of men wearing d wade jerseys. Yao hasn't been playing for a while and chinese people still love watching NBA basketball. Yao hasn't ever really been a title contender. I doubt that this will affect NBA popularity very much. Basketball is played in leagues all over china now, i'm watching the national team play australia in some league as i type this. NBA will be watched as it is the highest tier of professional basketball in the world. Anyone that wants to be good at basketball will want to learn from the best players in the world playing on the biggest stage in the world.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
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    the most stressed women are in cambodia.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  4. Deo DA' Ceo

    yao Ming,will be missed dearly by the Chinese NBA community.from An African perspective he will be compared to a short stubbing spear which was definitely more effective

    July 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  5. Runcan

    It's doesn't matter! While I was a child,I had known NBA and Jordon who is the greatest player!!Yao just a successful player, his's leaving can't stop the all the real NBA fans in China.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  6. Bumble

    I think there are many outstanding players in NBA .It will not influence popularity in China much.

    July 14, 2011 at 4:48 am |
  7. george

    the popularity of NBA in China is way way way beyond Yao Ming. Read about it here – http://thinkingchinese.com/index.php?page_id=224

    July 14, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  8. skeptic

    Did Yao even make a difference? Not a dent on NBA for sure.

    July 15, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
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    i wish Yao was still playing, where you are that big it is tough on bones :(... here is a funny joke I saw about the Miami heat and the Lord of the Rings, http://ponderingstuff.com/2011/11/14/miami-heat-rings/

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