NBA China unfazed by Yao injury

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BEIJING -- China's most iconic athlete is out for the season and possibly the Olympics, but the National Basketball Assn. is not concerned that Chinese fans will turn off their TVs.

"Our fans in China are still avid viewers of NBA games not featuring Houston during the regular season, playoffs and finals," Sau Ching Cheong, NBA China's top spokesperson, said in an interview Thursday.

Yao Ming, who plays for the Houston Rockets, was ruled out of Tuesday night's game, and the rest of the NBA season, with a stress fracture in his left foot. Yao's recovery is expected to take until June, bringing it uncomfortably close to Beijing's Olympic Games, which begin Aug. 8.

The NBA's ratings in China don't suffer from Yao's failure or absence, Cheong said. "As we approach the playoffs, remember the Rockets did not make the playoffs in '03 and '06 and in the years that they did, haven't made it out of the first round," she said.

Still, Yao is a major ratings draw. When Yao faced countryman Yi Jianlian, a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, in November, some billed it as "the Chinese Super Bowl." The two played again in early February, with both games drawing Chinese television audiences of 100 million-200 million.

Along with his performance on the basketball court, Yao's prominence has also made him a top pitchman in his native country, with contracts for McDonald's and China's No. 2 mobile service provider, China Unicom. He has also come out against the consumption of shark fin soup for the environmental group WildAid.

China is a major expansion market for the NBA. In January, a group of investors including sportscaster ESPN and Asia's richest man, Li Ka Shing, paid $253 million for an 11% stake in NBA China, created to handle all of the league's affairs here, including licensed retail. The new entity also hired Timothy Chen, a former CEO of Microsoft China, to head the new company (HR 1/16).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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