Will Yao Ming’s retirement hurt the NBA in China?

With Yao Ming now retired, the NBA must venture forth without its greatest ambassador to China. This is not a minor loss -- with the world's most populous nation going progressively more gaga for the sport with every passing year, the league must take advantage as much as possible. Without Yao, that task will become tougher.

The question, though, is whether his retirement will break Chinese interest in basketball or merely slow it a bit. Opinions differ. From Benjamin Gottlieb for CNN.com:

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. [...]

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.

Gottlieb may be correct that Yao's retirement will hit the NBA's popularity in China, but I wouldn't take the stats from the Sina Weibo poll as gospel. Unscientific Internet polls are just as inaccurate in China as they are in America. Maybe our cultures aren't so different after all.

Plus, while Yao is an incredibly important figure in the history of Chinese basketball, it's unclear that he's ever been the most popular. In recent years, he hasn't even had one of the five most popular jerseys in the country, with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among others (including Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady, in the past) eclipsing his sales. Jersey sales don't tell the whole story of a player's popularity, but they do help show that the NBA has connected with fans apart from the nationalistic identification of players like Yao and Yi Jianlian.

Again, maybe the NBA will not see such massive growth in China in the next few years, but it's hard to believe that the league will suddenly stop being popular. By all indications, the Chinese people love basketball, not only Yao Ming, and want to experience the sport at its highest level. Yao or no Yao, they're going to watch games and embrace the league. As their first stars leave the game, they'll embrace new ones. We know this because American basketball fans do the same and, ultimately, we like the sport for similar reasons.