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Yao Switches From Nike to Reebok

October 24, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Reebok won the latest skirmish in the ever-growing basketball shoe wars Thursday, signing Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets to a multiyear endorsement deal and taking him away from rival Nike.

What's more, the contract opens the door to a largely untapped but potentially lucrative market in China, Yao's homeland, and the rest of Asia for Reebok. Yao's contract with Nike, which he signed while still in China, expired after last season.

Terms of the deal weren't announced, but Yao reportedly will be paid about $75 million for 10 years, putting him a distant second to Cleveland Cavalier rookie LeBron James as the highest-paid sneaker pitch man. James signed a seven-year deal worth $90 million with Nike earlier this year.

"Reebok and the NBA have earmarked China as a significant growth opportunity," Paul Fireman, Reebok chairman, said in a conference call with reporters.

"The addition of Yao gives us incredible traction in China, a critical market with great potential for our brand," Fireman added in a statement on the company's Web site.

Yao, a 7-foot-5 center who was selected with the first overall pick in the 2002 draft by the Rockets, emerged as more than a curiosity during his rookie season.

Perhaps every bit as impressive as averaging 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.74 blocks in 82 games, Yao received more votes than Laker center Shaquille O'Neal and started for the Western Conference in the All-Star game.

"Yao is a known quantity on the world stage," Mark Pannes, a former marketing official with the Knicks who now runs a New York-based marketing company, told the Bloomberg news service. "He's the next big thing."

Yao represented a significant target for Reebok, which lost Laker guard Kobe Bryant to Nike earlier this year. Bryant signed a five-year contract worth between $40 million and $45 million.

Earlier this month, Nike quashed rumors that it was set to cut ties with Bryant over the sexual assault charges he faces in Colorado, offering a buyout of his contract.

"Nothing has changed in our relationship with Kobe Bryant," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox said, adding that Bryant's signature shoe is due out in February.

Knox declined to comment Thursday on Yao's signing.

Reebok's largest endorsement deals are with Philadelphia 76er guard Allen Iverson, New Jersey Net forward Kenyon Martin and guard Steve Francis, Yao's Houston teammate.

"I look forward to the fun and the challenge of promoting basketball worldwide," Yao said in a statement.

This won't be Yao's first brush with commercial success. Starting last January, he also starred in a TV spot for Apple computers with Verne Troyer, the diminutive actor who played Mini Me in the "Austin Powers" films.

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