The sky-high billboards that dot Beijing's skyline with Yao's likeness haven't gone anywhere. Despite the stress fracture in his left foot, an injury that will cause him to miss the rest of the NBA season, Yao's endorsement contracts remain very much intact leading to the Beijing Games.
In fact, the injury may have generated even more of a buzz in a country that boasts an estimated 300 million basketball fans, almost all viewing the 7-foot-6 center for the Houston Rockets as their No. 1 national sports star.
"I think media scrutiny and fan interest regarding Yao's recovery will keep the Olympic buzz growing strong," said Chris Renner, the head of Helios Partners China, a sports marketing consulting company based in Beijing. "The saga of 'will he or won't he' play in the Olympics will be drummed into the heads of a billion people."
Yao makes about $25 million a year in endorsements through a carefully chosen set of sponsors that include Reebok, China Unicom, Coke, Visa and others, says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike executive who now runs Zou Marketing, a sports marketing company in Shanghai.
Some of those sponsors, like Reebok, may suffer as Yao misses the end of the NBA season, robbing the company of one of its best platforms to advertise. NBA games are televised on more than 50 Chinese networks, and Yao is that company's biggest basketball pitchman. He has two shoes, the Dragon ATR Elite II and the Hexride Yao Ming Olympic, that are being marketed for the Beijing Olympics, and to be sold almost exclusively in China.
The Rockets were on a 19-game winning streak as of Tuesday, positioning themselves as one of many legitimate contenders in the NBA's Western Conference, even without Yao.
"If the Rockets make the finals and Yao's not there, that's 200 million people in China who would miss out on the chance to see him on basketball's biggest stage," said Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consulting firm.
Nothing to sneeze at, of course, but nothing compared to the numbers who will see him when the Chinese national team takes on the world at the Olympics.
Other sponsors, like Coke and McDonald's, have deals with Yao that are tied, in part, to the Olympics, and thus will see virtually no diminishing of the value of their investment. Reebok ads, meanwhile, won't be a part of Olympic programming.
"Yao Ming is a loss for sure, but it's not going to be a disaster for the campaigns" being run by Coke and McDonald's, Renner said. "They have a story to tell already by being Olympic sponsor and Yao is just an add on. But in my opinion, the timing couldn't be worse for someone like Reebok."
Representatives from the Adidas Group, which owns Reebok, did not immediately return e-mails left by The Associated Press.
When Yao announced he would miss the rest of the season, the most heartfelt moment of his news conference came when he said: "If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, it will be the biggest loss in my career to right now."
Indeed, for China's biggest sports star to be unavailable for China's biggest sports event would be a grand disappointment that could affect many bottom lines -- viewership and sponsorship among them.
Doctors, however, are optimistic he'll fully recover from surgery and be back before the Olympics in August. Yao shares that view.
"The surgery was very successful and I'll start physical recovery very soon," he wrote in a letter published in Chinese newspapers. "I'll do whatever I can to overcome the difficulty and play for China in Olympics and be in my best form."
Renner said high-profile athletes like Yao or Michael Jordan often sign contracts that don't penalize them if they are injured of fail to appear in a specific event. This is all based on the assumption they are bigger than any single event.
"It depends on how savvy the sponsors have been in negotiating their agreements with Yao," Renner said. "Typically, there is some provision if an athlete is injured or doesn't participate in a particular event."
But even if a sponsor gets some money back because of this injury, Yao's long-term marketability isn't harmed, according to the experts. He's only 27, probably not even halfway through his career. He's the face of a popular sport in the world's largest country. And even when he's not on the court, he's in the news. Yao's wedding grabbed attention of Britneyesque proportion in China last summer.
Renner compared Yao's situation to those of Wayne Rooney and David Beckham, soccer stars for the English national team. Each broke a bone in his foot just a few months before the World Cup -- Rooney in 2006 and Beckham in 2002. Their recoveries were breathlessly chronicled, with constant speculation about whether they would make it to the World Cup. But their injuries didn't scare advertisers. Five days after Rooney played in his first World Cup game, coming on as a substitute, Nike featured him in ads and a massive billboard with the red cross of the English flag painted on him.
With summer approaching, marketing reps see the same potential for Yao.
"He is so enormously marketable now, that I don't think this adversely affects him," Ganis said. "That's assuming he comes back from his injury and plays in the Olympics. Other than that, I don't think this does anything other than shows how important a person he is."