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Yao Ming's Injury Could Send Reebok Reeling

The Dragon ATR Elite II
CNBC.com
The Dragon ATR Elite II

It was 31 months ago that adidas bought Reebok for $3.8 billion. What adidas was essentially doing was buying the U.S. market that had always challenged them. Reebok had a 20 percent share of that market and the combination of the two would lead, presumably, to a legitimate fight with Nike .

Well, aside from its logo on NFL jerseys, Reebok is almost non-existent today. A couple weeks ago, I walked into a well-known sporting goods chain that had a shoe department and there wasn't even one Reebok shoe there. The only reason I know they're still ticking was their great Rajon Rondo shoe at the NBA All-Star game and the incredible insight to sign the 1972 Dolphins to an endorsement deal before the Super Bowl so that they could make this commercial:

But the reality is this. They ended 2007 with a measly 3.6 percent stake in the U.S. basketball footwear market, according to Matt Powell of SportsOneSource. That's compared to 5.1 percent for the adidas brand and an astounding 86 percent for Nike. Powell now estimates that Reebok's U.S. footwear business is about half of what it was when Adidas acquired them.

Now comes the news that Yao Ming is out for the rest of the NBA season. At its worst, his injured foot could take him out for what will always be the biggest event of his career: the Olympics in his homeland of China. And there is no brand that will be reeling more if Yao Ming can't play than Reebok.

Go through the Reebok's basketball roster and you'll see, there's no star of the future more important than Yao Ming. Not only because he has so much upside, but because he is top of mind in the world's fastest growing market of China. In fact, some could argue that the fortunes of Reebok are more tied to Yao Ming than the fortunes of any other athlete to any other shoe company. Yep, I just said that and it's because Reebok doesn't have a whole lot going for it right now.

It's not necessarily about the shoes. It's about the brand association. Reebok recently released a Yao Ming shoe--The Dragon ATR Elite II, and is readying to release another in time for the Olympics--the Hexride. But they're only making 208 pairs for the U.S. and 2008 pairs for China. So the idea is for Yao to help the Reebok brand not only sell shoes, but sell everything else.

When Nike decided not to renew Yao after his rookie season, many in the sports marketing world were surprised, given the company's commitment to China. But Nike might have made the right call. The troubling trend for adidas and Reebok is the fact that, as the Chinese watch more basketball and as the players travel more to China, Yao Ming is definitely losing some steam.

Look no further than the China jersey sales rankings the NBA has released the last two years. Yao was ranked third for the 2005-06 season behind his teammate Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, but last year, he ranked No. 6 behind Kobe, Iverson, McGrady, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. And please don't send me e-mails that claim that the reason for this is because everyone has a Yao jersey in China.

If everyone who wants a Brett Favre jersey still doesn't have one in the U.S. (he's consistently ranked as one of the best selling jerseys in the NFL despite no team or jersey look change), then everyone in China doesn't have a Rockets #11. I've also seen it with my own eyes. Keep in mind, I was in Beijing instead of Shanghai, but at places where sports are played in China, LeBron seemed to be as present as Yao was.

I was waiting to see the new Yao Ming commercial, that's only airing in China, where the company reportedly utilized never-before-used technology. Now, I'm not sure what's going to happen with it. But if Yao somehow can't play in the Olympics, I know what's going to happen to Reebok.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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