Going Global: Jeremy Lin and the NBA
Linsanity has become a global phenomena, but the NBA’s popularity throughout Asia is nothing new.
by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL
In 2010, I visited Taiwan, speaking to university students about Yao Ming and then-college player Jeremy Lin. Even though Lin is Taiwanese American, few students knew who he was—most knew about Yao, some just wanted to talk about Beyoncé and Jay-Z. In Taiwan today, it’s safe to think that—like Kobe Bryant—most know who Jeremy Lin is now.
Unsurprisingly, one of the emergent Linsanity narratives has been that he is providing a bridge to untapped markets, whether Asian-American communities or those throughout Asia. Constructing Asian-American fans and those from throughout Asia (with little differentiation across various countries) as otherwise disinterested in basketball, the narrative replicates stereotypes while simultaneously erasing the immense popularity of basketball within the Asian Diaspora.
Jeremy Lin has been credited with either cultivating or revitalizing interest in basketball throughout Asia. According to Matt Brooks, “But in the post-Yao Ming NBA, Lin just might be the player to further the League’s growth in Asia, while continuing to inspire athletes to break the mold.”
Similarly, an Associated Press story credits Lin with filling the void left by Yao Ming: “Jeremy Lin and Ricky Rubio aren’t just responsible for reviving their dormant franchises. They also are giving the NBA two fresh young faces to market internationally. As the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Lin is re-opening doors in Asia that were feared to be closing in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement. He’s led the New York Knicks to five straight victories and has become an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden.”
While clearly Lin has captured the national and international imagination, the narrative that there weren’t NBA fans throughout the Diaspora lacks any factual basis. And the argument that the NBA did not exist in Asia prior to Yao Ming or that fans in China or Japan, Thailand or the Philippines or Taiwan were fans of Yao and not the NBA reinforces stereotypes while erasing the history of the NBA globally. Lin’s own story, whose father became immensely passionate about the NBA after watching games while still living in Taiwan, is a testament to the globalization of basketball.
NBA Commissioner David Stern once described “the opportunity for basketball and the NBA in China” as “simply extraordinary.” The media narrative around Jeremy Lin has advanced this argument, yet reducing the NBA’s popularity in Taiwan, China, and throughout Asia to ethnic or national solidarity is simplistic. Basketball has been immensely popular throughout Asia for many years.
According to a 2007 study, 89 percent of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 54 were “aware of the NBA,” with 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 describing themselves as fans. With 1.4 billion viewers watching NBA games during the 2008 season (up through April 30) on one of the 51 broadcast outlets in China, and 25 million Chinese visiting NBA.com/China each month, basketball and the NBA are cultural phenomena within China.
And while the immense fanfare directed at NBA stars is partially a result of the emergence of Yao Ming within the NBA, American NBA players have in recent years generated equal, if not more, popularity. For example, Yao Ming, whose jersey ranked as the sixth most popular in 2007, had dropped into 10th by 2008 even behind the likes of Gilbert Arenas. As of 2010, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had the two most popular jerseys in China, with Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant also feeling the love. The allure of the NBA, and the immense excitement that the League generates did not begin and end with Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin.
The popularity of the NBA and its players was clearly on full display during the 2008 Summer Olympics. While attending a US Women’s basketball game, Bryant attempted to move through the crowd to his seat, only to find himself amid a sea of cheering fans. The presence of Bryant, who has experienced ample criticism and media derision during the course of his career within the United States, receiving star-studded adoration assumed to be reserved for Chinese athletes, was a testament to the popularity of the NBA and its (African) American basketball stars in China.
Evidence of this popularity, US exhibition games versus Turkey and Lithuania in Macau prior to the Beijing Olympics resulted in sellouts one hour after tickets went on sale. This further reveals the cultural importance of American basketball stars within China. “The stands during last week’s exhibition games in Macau were awash with product,” reported Anthony Cotton in The Denver Post. “The 12-man US team has donned the uniforms the players will wear in the Olympics just three times, but already hundreds of fans were garbed just like Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant—home and away.”
Dwight Howard even wondered in the days leading up to the Olympics if he was “more popular in China and Asia than in the United States. And in some ways, basketball here may be bigger than in the States” (qtd. in Cotton 2008).
None of this is to say that Lin has not inspired interest, especially among causal fans or even those disinterested in the games. The media fanfare, the efforts to televise his games (with ratings up 39 percent in China), and the human-interest story all contribute to this heightened interest. According to the Wall Street Journal Sina Weibo contained over 1.8 million Lin-related message at one point. Lin also had more than 857,000 followers on Sina Weibo (and a combined 1.5 million on Sina Weibo and China Tencent), compared to his 235,000 on Twitter.
With Lin’s jersey taking top spot and Forbes announcing that the “Lin Brand” is worth $14 million, it is clear that he is even an economic as well as social and cultural impact. MSG stock rising 14 percent over recent days, the Knicks online store garnering a 3,000 percent growth sales, and the team holding five of the 10 best-selling jerseys (Lin was No. 1) is a testament to Lin’s impact and his economic potential for the Dolan family, the Knicks, the NBA and its corporate partners.
The failure to situate the increased interest beyond Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming, to reflect on the history of basketball’s popularity throughout the Asian Diaspora, is particularly deleterious given the ways the media has historically focused on Black-Asian conflict. The efforts to paint a picture where Asian communities repel any interest in basketball, only to find joy once a “brother” enters the fray is simplistic at one level and problematic at another level.
To celebrate the ethnic/racial/national pride that results from Linsanity is one thing and is clearly evident as one looks at ratings, social media, and the overall excitement. Yet, to imagine Asians as otherwise disinterested in basketball (playing and watching) reifies stereotypes the sports within Asian communities and about Black-Asian conflict, all while legitimizing argument that the behavior Black players repel fans throughout the world. It is clear that Jeremy Lin has captivated the global imagination, inspiring and cultivating fans from NY to Taipei, yet to imagine him as a gateway to an untapped market otherwise disinterested in the NBA is both factually false and troubling at some many levels.
Less than 10 years ago, during an earlier trip to Taiwan, it was common to walk in a store with advertisements, displays and products of Kobe Bryant. It’s not hard to imagine that Lin—like Kobe, LeBron, Wade and other NBA stars—will see his image begin to appear throughout Asia. I just wish it was in Lakers; purple and gold instead of Knicks blue.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.