Basketball shoe wars

Reebok won the latest skirmish in the ever-growing basketball shoe wars recently, signing Yao Ming (pix right) of the Houston Rockets to a multi-year endorsement deal and taking him away from rival Nike. What is 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 were not 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, told reporters. "The addition of Yao gives us incredible traction in China, a critical market with great potential for our brand." Yao, a 2.3-metre centre, who was selected with the first overall pick in last year's 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 centre Shaquille O'Neal and started for the Western Conference in the All-Star game.

"Yao is a known quantity on the world stage," said Mark Pannes, a former marketing official with the Knicks who now runs a New York-based marketing company.

"He's the next big thing." 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 team-mate.

"I look forward to the fun and the challenge of promoting basketball worldwide,' Yao said. This would not be his first brush with commercial success. In January, he starred in a TV spot for Apple computers with Verne Troyer, the diminutive actor who played Mini Me in the Austin Powers films.