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Will 'Linsanity' Take Root In Houston?

San Francisco Chronicale, July 20, 2012

By Paresh Dave

Exactly a year separated the news conferences where longtime Houston Rockets center Yao Ming announced his retirement and where NBA sensation Jeremy Lin was introduced as the Rockets' new star this week.

Lin, a Taiwanese American who led Palo Alto High School to a state title in 2006, has a chance to reignite the trans-Pacific marketing and media machine that surrounded Yao, the NBA's first huge star from China. But first his new team and potential advertisers must decide whether to boost the "Linsanity" hype the young player ignited in New York last season, or wait until it's clear just how good a player he will turn out to be.

"If I'm the Rockets, I'm thinking, how much longer can the Linsanity narrative sustain itself? And when the inevitable regression to the mean happens for Lin, how are we able to shift the narrative to serve our business?" said Matt Bowers, a professor at the University of Texas and co-founder of consulting firm Hook & Ladder Creative Sport Solutions.

Bowers said "Linsanity" was a great second chapter to Lin's story, but what Lin and the Rockets can do with the rest of his story will be where the money is made – or not.

Missed opportunities
Lin became a global phenomenon when he became the starting point guard for the New York Knicks and led a seven-game winning streak that galvanized fans.

Linsanity could have taken root in the Bay Area. The Golden State Warriors first signed Lin in 2010 after he went undrafted out of Harvard. But in December 2011, Lin ended up with the Knicks after the Warriors and the Rockets both waived him.

This week, he returned to Houston, signing a three-year, $25.1 million deal with the Rockets that suggests the team has big plans for him.

By late last week, Lin had yet to update his own website and Facebook page to reflect his team change. But his new team was already accepting preorders online for his No. 7 jersey.

Lin's Knicks memorabilia, which had been a major seller for the Knicks and the NBA last year, has already fallen out of favor.

"We have a lot of stuff unsalable now with the Knicks," Jason Gruwell of the Sports Gallery in Lin's hometown of Palo Alto told the Houston Chronicle. "We won't do as well with him in Houston."

In New York, Linsanity was credited for Knicks' tickets nearly tripling in value on the secondary market in the weeks after Lin's debut. CNBC reported at the end of the season that Lin's jersey was the second most popular seller league-wide, behind only that of Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose.

Taiwan tie-in
All that seems to bode well for the Rockets. And it can't hurt that Houston is a sister city with the Taiwanese capital of Taipei.

Lin, who was born in Los Angeles, is the first NBA player whose parents emigrated from China or Taiwan.

"If the Rockets aren't putting together sales packages for Taiwanese companies right now, they are missing the boat," said Adam Nisenson, principal of Houston's Active Imagination Sports Marketing.

The Knicks were able to add two Taiwan-based sponsors mid-season. A marketing manager for one company, Maxxis Tires, told Bloomberg News that the company was definitely interested in a deal with the Rockets. A spokeswoman for the other company, computer manufacturer Acer, declined to comment.

As far as other Taiwanese companies, a spokeswoman for fellow computer manufacturer Asus said there is no plan to work with Lin at this time.

Lin brings to Houston his own endorsement deals with Volvo and Nike. When Volvo announced its endorsement deal with Lin, the company set a goal of selling 800,000 cars in China in 2020. Toyota became the sponsor of the Rockets' arena in 2003 after Yao's arrival, hoping to sell 300,000 cars a year in China by 2010. It nearly beat that goal three times over last year.

Smaller pond
Moving from the nation's oversaturated No. 1 television market to Houston's No. 10 also should help Lin secure more local sponsorships, said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of IEG. Many of those sponsors could be the same Asian businesses in Houston that sought out Yao. Lin told the media he "texted back and forth" with Yao before deciding to sign with the Rockets.

If the Rockets can perfect their messaging so fans emotionally connect with Lin whether he plays amazingly or just all right, Bowers said the Rockets "don't have to be setting the world on fire" for Lin and the team to benefit financially.

That might make the next chapter of what Lin has called his "unbelievable" ride "Rockets' Redemption."