By Cindy Li, BASC Research Assistant
The New York Knicks’ turnaround winning streak in early February put a spotlight on the newly signed Jeremy Lin and began the global Linsanity sensation.
Lin’s Cinderella story and Asian descent have allowed him to capture the attention of Chinese viewers. The effects of his overwhelming fame, however, may not be entirely positive. While one longtime NBA executive believes that Linsanity could be the catalyst that launches China on its way to becoming the next basketball power, The Economist argues that Lin’s American upbringing actually emphasizes the weaknesses in the Chinese athletic and education system.
On February 20th, 2012, just after the New York Knicks defeated the Dallas Mavericks (104-97), The Economist posted a blog entry, “Stop the Linsanity?”, which explores the detrimental effects of Jeremy Lin’s newfound stardom on China’s soft power. The article pits Jeremy Lin, the 6’3’’ American-born, Knicks player against Yi Jianliang, the 7 foot-tall Mavericks player drafted from China, effectively calling into question the Chinese sports system. Although China’s expanding economy and interest in basketball could more than support the development of a strong talent pool, it lacks an effective infrastructure that would facilitate professional success for talented athletes. The article provides an interesting analysis of Lin’s fame from the perspectives of Chinese viewers and leaders.
The unexpected success of Jeremy Lin should encourage China to reevaluate its athletic system, but the Economist’s claim that “Mr. Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce” is somewhat misleading. While Lin is the first American-born Chinese NBA player, the NBA has, in the past, drafted several players directly from the Chinese system, including Yao Ming, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, and Yi Jianlian. Admittedly, none of them were 6’3” and devoutly Christian, but how often does the US system produce a wildly successful 6’3’’ Asian basketball star? The truth of the matter is that even under a well-developed athletic system, the odds were stacked against him. The unlikelihood of the situation, however, has amplified his fame. As Yao Ming noted in an interview, “Lin is 6-3, more like a normal-sized person. He is the size that the average person can relate to. They like watching him play against many taller, bigger players and succeed.”
This appeal has undoubtedly taken effect on the Chinese audience, as businesses seem keen on leveraging Lin’s Chinese heritage. According to the Washington Post, with China as the NBA’s second biggest market after North America, Linsanity could be a key instrument in boosting its ratings in China. Coca Cola has already revealed plans to take advantage of Lin’s popularity among Chinese fans as it prepares to display Chinese ads courtside and possibly in the concourse at Madison Square Garden. Lin has also signed a two-year contract with Chinese-owned Volvo to promote its cars around the world.
Although Lin’s success can be used to highlight weaknesses in China’s sports system, the inspirational value of his story will certainly have a positive effect in China, both in increasing the popularity of basketball and in giving hope to aspiring Chinese basketball players. With continued enthusiasm and financial support, China could very well be on its way to becoming athletically competitive with the US.