Yao Ming Retires
Yao Ming Retires Reuters

That China is now an economic and political powerhouse isn't news to anyone. But there's one area where the ascent of Chinese power has been slower: sports. That may change soon.

China is an untapped market for many in the international sports industry. In a nation where citizens are stereotypically only good at individual sports, where athletes are rigorously raised and trained solely to win at sports like table tennis, badminton and various martial arts, the organizations behind Western team sports have begun to realize the nation's business potential.

The NBA has seen much success in the China market, with the establishment of NBA China, as well as the opening of an NBA store in Beijing, selling jerseys, shoes and other basketball merchandise to the nation's growing fans. Shanghai native Yao Ming, arguably China's only homegrown athlete to reach mainstream success in the West, has a lot to do with the popularity of basketball in the country.

In 2004, the NBA answered the call of China's growing love for the game,and its thirst for a player to idolize when Yao's Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings held two exhibition games in October in Shanghai and Beijing. The matchup would be the first game between two NBA teams to take place in China.

The exhibition games served as a test run for measuring national interest and testing the facilities. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China did not have facilities ready for NBA-caliber games and had a lot of refurbishing to complete ahead of the players' arrival.

Growing up in China while attending an international school, my familiarity with the NBA was probably more advanced than the average high-school-age Chinese -- but not by much. I watched the championship games, I knew who the big players were at the time and I played the sport while growing up, so I understood the rules of the game. However, I probably could not have named an entire starting line-up of any team, or even named a coach. That changed drastically when I was picked to be a ball-girl for the Rockets-Kings game in Beijing.

My brother, who was also picked, and I found ourselves on the newly installed hardwood court, chasing rebounds as Tracy McGrady practiced his free throw. I was folding the sweaty warm-up gear of Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo while sitting next to their trainer on the Rockets bench. I found myself on the receiving end of a snap pass from Patrick Ewing that almost knocked me out of the brand new Nike basketball shoes that I got for the game. I watched the entire game in awe, along with the Chinese, as NBA greats brought new light to Beijing's rundown hometown arena.

Granted, my up-close experience was pretty unforgettable, and it would likely make a true basketball fan out of even the most amateur lay person, but previously unheard-of players became household names almost overnight. The huge success of the exhibition game put Jeff Van Gundy and the rest of the Rockets on China's radar. Even Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic of the Kings gained fans after that game. The Rockets became China's hometown team, and an American sports league finally found traction in a market of 1.3 billion people -- and the seeds of American sports culture were planted.

Soon, the NFL and MLB set their sights on China, too. However, both the U.S. football and baseball leagues have seen very slow development in China. The NFL China website content is comprised mostly of highlight pictures and schedules of where to catch games online, and China's "College Bowl" bears very little resemblance to American college football programs. Photos on the website of players in the College League, who only play flag football, are more reminiscent of a college intramural game than of players with national prospects like those in the U.S. The NFL seems to be mostly interested in gaining viewership and merchandise sales rather than establishing a American football playing-culture.

Major League Baseball has seen a little more success in establishing a fan base. In 2008, ahead of the Olympics, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres headed to Beijing. As a fan of baseball and high school softball, I was there too, sitting in the stands and watching as an enthusiastic crowd cheered on foul balls while donning New York Yankees hats. In other words: the excitement was there, but the knowledge base was not.

Of course, Americans learn the game from a young age, unlike what the Chinese had done until then. Pee Wee leagues for both sports can start as young as seven in the U.S. And now, China wanted some of that sports culture, too, but it lacked the infrastucture.

Post-Olympics, Beijing's recreational infrastructure improved drastically. The state of the art facilities could now house league games and thousands of spectators. But infrastructure aside, people think increasing participation at a younger, more casual level is key to building mainstream passion for sports.

Darrell Barnes, Director of Sports Beijing, a non-profit sports organization that offers various competitive sports programs for all ages in Beijing, has a good understanding of the developing appreciation for sports. "The key issue in China remains the lack of development and focus on grass-roots sports," he said.

Chinese national success at sports would also increase participation. "The concept of recreational and community sports still does not really exist, which is why China, for all its gold medals, rarely produces any results in ‘team’ sports," Barnes said.

Jeff Johanson, Athletic Director at the International School of Beijing, my alma mater, has seen the changes in Chinese sports culture over the past nine years he has held the job. While attending the school, along with my expatriate peers, I played various team sports from middle school through high school. Finding local competitors outside of the international school system was a challenge for our activities' administrators, particularly for sports like baseball, softball and rugby. But that's different today. "I would say it probably has become somewhat easier to find appropriate local Chinese competition for our varsity teams," Johanson told me.

After finding schools with athletic programs in the area, ISB was able to maintain relationships and use its state-of-the-art facilities to encourage sports popularity. "We have ongoing relationships with middle schools, high schools, specialty schools and some universities that we’ve developed over my nine years at ISB … Luckily, we’re about to open two new sports domes on campus, which will enable us to spread the exposure of sport more fully," Johanson said.

Culturally, Western nations see the potential of sports as a path to higher education, through athletic scholarships, or character-building through teamwork. Only recently has China begun to see the academic value of participating in sports in a non-specialized manner, particularly for students hoping to attend a university overseas. "Now [Chinese universities] have woken up and are demanding more rounded kids and are requesting that applicants have other skills, notably music and sports," Barnes said.

It isn't just athletic leagues that see the potential in China, but players as well. During last year's NBA lockout, several players took their talents to China so they could at least keep playing; some stayed. Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady play in the Chinese league, as did Steve Francis. It's not just basketball stars: Soccer player Didier Drogba left European champion Chelsea to join the Shanghai Shenhua.

With Yao Ming officially retired from the NBA, China no longer has a hometown hero in the league. However, loyalty to the game is higher than ever. This October, the Los Angeles Clippers and the 2012 Champion Miami Heat visited Beijing and Shanghai to play pre-season exhibition games, probably to see if the fan base still existed without Yao Ming. It does. Big names like Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Blake Griffin wowed Chinese crowds in both cities.

In China, the NBA is there to stay, and the statistics prove it. NBA Commissioner David Stern expects to see at least a 10 percent increase in Chinese revenue. Business Week reported that China is spending $150 million on television and digital rights to air the games. With an estimated 300 million people playing basketball in China, the 10 percent goal does not seem far-fetched.

The future of the MLB and NFL, however, will likely hinge on whether their grassroots popularity grows. But the fastest way to gain fans would be to appeal to Chinese pride: If China could produce a baseball or football star who could do in America what Yao did in basketball, even a relatively novel sport would gain a lot of fans overnight among those 1.3 billion people.