James Harden, Houston Rockets superstar, recently made headlines for a traffic violation he made in Shanghai, China on his scooter. However, this will do little to dampen Chinese fans’ great enthusiasm for the Houston Rockets. Originally due to Yao Ming’s success playing in Houston, the Rockets are sometimes known as “China’s Team” and stand out in popularity among all other NBA teams in what is now the world’s largest sports market.
Harden’s recent promotional tour in China, complete with basketball training clinics featuring Chinese youths wearing James Harden-style fake beards and other events, was met with enthusiastic response. The Rockets’ newest jerseys also feature Chinese writing — another appeal to their growing Chinese fan base. Streaming sports is a huge business in China and it has helped drive significant revenue to the NBA. In 2015 the NBA and Chinese online business giant Tencent signed a deal worth a reported $500 million and the NBA is currently the number one followed league in China online.
The Rockets’ popularity has led to increased Chinese interest in traveling to Houston and Texas. Chinese tourists in Texas have been increasing, and they are soon expected to become the largest group of overseas visitors from outside of North America. Fandom of the Houston Rockets has played an important role in spreading this awareness of Houston as a potential destination.
Meanwhile, business connections outside of tourism have also increased. The Houston Rockets recently announced a sponsorship deal with a Chinese cryptocurrency mining company and the team’s esports subsidiary signed a deal with Chinese tech company Bilibili to stream events on the Chinese site. These deals come in addition to several other previous and continuing sponsorships with Chinese companies including Peak and ZTE. Outside of the Rockets, Houston-based Chenerie Energy Inc. plans to sign a multi-billion dollar deal with China’s Sinopec.
Houston and China have ties that reach back farther than Yao Ming’s joining the Rockets. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s trip to the United States in 1979 featured a stop at a rodeo west of Houston. Deng famously donned a 10 gallon cowboy hat as he smiled and waved at the crowd, giving a signal to the Chinese people that it was okay to open up to the United States and appreciate its culture. What began at a rodeo, grew with Yao Ming’s arrival, and is still continuing today as Houston, Texas, and China continue to strengthen their relationship.
Mark Witzke is a participant in the East-West Center in Washington’s Young Professionals Program. He is also a graduate student studying international politics at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and the editor in chief of the school's China Focus blog.