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Thursday, May 1
Updated: May 2, 3:33 PM ET
Can Yao and Starbucks do business? NBA deciding

By Darren Rovell

Yao Ming is a big fan of Starbucks' Mocha Frappuccinos, but the Houston Rockets' rookie center from China can't get paid to tell the world of his affection for the coffee drink -- at least not yet.

Negotiations between Yao and the world's largest specialty coffee retailer have slowed while the NBA seeks assurance that a possible endorsement deal would not involve tampering between teams or violate the league's collective bargaining agreement. Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and chief executive officer, also owns the Seattle SuperSonics.

Christina Aguilera
Yao Ming, a tad taller than Christina Aguilera and Shaq, has become a popular product endorser since he left China to join the NBA.
Bill Duffy, an agent who represents Yao, met with NBA commissioner David Stern three weeks ago.

"Yao Ming is a big fan of Starbucks and he wants to work with them, so we started to discuss what the proper protocol would be in going forward," Duffy said. "It would be unfortunate if an opportunity of this magnitude was hindered because of (Schultz's) involvement with both entities."

The league has not begun to stipulate specific parameters in a possible deal since talks are in the initial stages.

"Generally speaking, if an owner of a team has a company that wants to employ another team's player in any manner, that raises tampering issues," said Joel Litvin, the NBA's executive vice president for legal and business affairs. "Those issues are not insurmountable as long as they are addressed with the appropriate safeguards to ensure that the relationship between that player and the company never extend to the basketball court."

Although Yao has endorsement deals with Gatorade, Visa and Apple, Starbucks has been on Yao's radar for some time. On the day before Yao played in Seattle for the first time, the Rockets center and Schultz reportedly met. Yao's representatives and Schultz later denied that the meeting ever happened.

"I'm a little disappointed," Yao said before the Nov. 30 game, through his interpreter Colin Pine. "I thought there would be a Starbucks on the bench here in Seattle."

"It's definitely his drink of choice," said Pine, who was also Yao's roommate this season. "Almost every time we passed a Starbucks, he had to get his drink."

Starbucks currently does not have endorsement deals with athletes, although Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is believed to be nearing a deal with the company.

"We are in initial discussions with Ichiro," said Audrey Lincoff, director of public affairs for Starbucks. "But we have no agreement or discussions to reports concerning Yao Ming." The company also has sponsorship deals with the Mariners, the Sonics and the NFL's Seahawks, and has signage at Safeco Field, Key Arena and Husky Stadium.

Although an alliance with Yao and Starbucks would signal the first time an NBA owner's company has signed a player from another team, Duffy said that he expects it to become common in the future. Other NBA team owners who also own companies that could seek player endorsements include the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban, who is co-founder of HDNet, the Miami Heat's Micky Arison, who is CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, or the Portland Trail Blazers' Paul Allen, who is chairman of Charter Communications, which owns The Sporting News.

"How we proceed from here regarding the structure we set up could determine the future of how other deals like this are structured," Duffy said.

"Given the worldwide presence of Starbucks and Howard's role with the Sonics, it's possible that something like this would come up," Litvin said. "We've never had one of these discussions before, so I'm not sure of the exact process. But as long as the player's team and the owner of the other team were satisfied with the deal in accordance with league rules, it could be worked out."

Yao's future endorsement of the product, should it ever be consummated, could be important since Starbucks has more than 100 stores in China. Company executives recently announced they had seen a small decline in sales in Asian markets due to the outbreak of the SARS virus.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for, can be reached at

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