Jeremy Lin's Appeal Is Irresistible in China, Too

Added Value's Jerry Clode Looks at Why Marketers There Will Want to Sign an Asian Athlete Who Plays in the U.S.

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Even more than his athletic prowess, New York Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin's ethnic-Chinese identity is dominating Lin-sanity, especially in China.

Lin in his first Knicks game in December
Lin in his first Knicks game in December

Mr. Lin's impact there is immense, with millions glued to TVs and researching his story online. The excitement was highlighted in an uncharacteristically impassioned plea by Xinhua -- the Communist Party's official news agency -- that Lin declare his allegiance to China, and sign up for the national basketball team (that 's despite Lin's U.S. citizenship and Taiwanese parentage). However, the mass excitement and desire to own Mr. Lin speaks to a wider crisis in China's sports psyche, making him especially appealing to marketers.

Generally, China has struggled to find powerful sports role models who can match the increasingly international mind-set of China's younger generation.

Only two figures have succeeded so far -- former NBA star Yao Ming and Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang. Mr. Yao, the first Chinese player to "make it" in the NBA, represented a breakthrough moment in Chinese sports as the most visible Chinese professional athlete abroad. Liu Xiang's Olympic Gold medal in a track-and-field event made him an Asian star in a sport dominated by African and European athletes. Both were also symbolically important for local fans, as relatively self-made athletes who flourished outside of China's official sports system.

However, Mr. Liu's buildup for the 2012 Olympics in London is shadowed by the injury that caused him to withdraw from the 2008 games in Beijing, an image that devastated a nation, and makes Mr. Liu's return to the Olympics this year an anxious time for fans.

Mr. Yao's retirement in 2010 meant Chinese fans lost a "personal" presence in the NBA league. Jeremy Lin's dramatic arrival is changing that . As one Chinese admirer says in an online chat room: "He's giving face to all China's basketball-loving fans. Go for it, Brother Lin."

In the popularity contest to be an in-sport, "Lin-sanity" gives the NBA renewed appeal in a fast-growing market, and will draw a deeper and broader level of spectators. The NBA has enjoyed consistent growth since Mr. Yao started playing in the league, leading to national broadcasting deals and corporate endorsements such as leading local beer brand -- Qingdao (Tsingtao).

The NBA's popularity has corresponded with a fall from grace for soccer, due to erratic broadcasts of matches and the Chinese national team's poor performance. The distaste for soccer is so strong now that the national team is popularly referred to as the "stinky feet."

So Mr. Lin is a hot prospect for marketers in China. Even non-Chinese NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are highly visible in China through deals with marketers like Nike and Sprite.

Although Mr. Lin doesn't have any endorsement deals in the U.S. or China, his predecessors as star international athletes were magnets for marketers in China. Mr. Yao has had advertising deals with Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa, and Mr. Liu works with Nike and Cadillac.

Unlike China's Olympic stars in areas like badminton and diving, Mr. Lin's story isn't tied to a single sports event, giving him greater longevity. No matter what happens next, there will be huge interest in China in the rest of the New York Knicks season, and the post-season when speculation begins on Mr. Lin's next team.

China's local Olympic heroes, such as badminton champion Lin Dan, compete in a sport that is dominated by Asian athletes, reducing their global relevance. The idea that China is fascinated with the same story that Americans are is really captivating online-obsessed Chinese youth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JERRY CLODE is associate director at WPP's Added Value, where he focuses on cultural insight for Asia-Pacific.
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