Houston Community News >> Yao To Build Fitness Center in China

5/13/2007-- Yao Ming couldn’t quite carry his Houston Rockets into the second round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, but the Chinese star plans to carry the 24 Hour Fitness chain into China when it opens its first workout club in Beijing in August.

Tapping Yao as its China pitchman and equity partner, 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide plans to open 20 to 30 workout facilities in the next five years throughout China, which it sees as a great growth market.

Privately held 24 Hour Fitness will operate in China through its wholly owned subsidiary California Fitness. There are already 10 California Fitness clubs in Hong Kong and another six in Taiwan, to go with some 370 of the 24 Hour Fitness outlets in the United States, said company chairman and founder Mark Mastrov.

But the biggest prize in the Asia Pacific region is fast-growing China, where Yao is a national hero whose every move attracts attention.

“He is the most famous and most respected sportsman in China,” Mastrov said, “and he loves to work out. He goes right to the gym as soon as he hits a city.”

Yao, a 7-foot-6-inch center and NBA all-star who is expected to anchor the Chinese men’s team in the Beijing Olympics next year, said in a telephone interview from his home in Houston that “24 Hour Fitness is a very successful company, and not just in the U.S., but internationally. It’s an honor to work with them.”

“A professional player like me can keep in great shape and enjoy life,” Yao said. “I really enjoy workouts. I just want to let people know, tell them they can enjoy being fit.”

Yao is not new to endorsements. Since leaving his hometown team, the Shanghai Sharks, to play in the NBA in 2002, he has at various times done TV commercials for the likes of Visa, Coca-Cola and Reebok. But with 24 Hour Fitness, Yao is going beyond simply lending his name. He will be an equity partner in the California Fitness China venture and is also involved in designing the clubs, according to both Mastrov and Yao.

“In Beijing, I will open the first club this summer,” Yao said. “It will have half-court basketball, weightlifting, cardiovascular equipment. I’m telling them what kind of music Chinese people like to listen to when they exercise: a little bit of pop, not too much.”

24 Hour Fitness, which Mastrov, an Oakland, Calif. native, started with one San Leandro, Calif. outlet in 1983, does not release profit and loss figures. But the company said it had revenue of $1.12 billion in 2005, and employs 16,000 people. In 2005, Forstmann, Little & Co., a private equity company, bought 24 Hour Fitness for a reported $1.6 billion.

As China’s new middle-class consumers buy cars, devour Western-style fast food and log ever-more TV and Internet time, they are, like their couch potato Western counterparts, fighting a battle of the bulge.

“In China, in the last 20 years, people are doing better, but they need more fitness,” Yao said. “But it’s not just buying nice dresses and cars, it’s knowing how to enjoy a healthy life.”

Katie Rollauer, senior manager for research at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, said fitness is a relatively new idea in China and its region: “Right now, in Asia, the health club scene is similar to how it was in the U.S. in the 1970s: kind of the Wild West, with lots of local operators.”

Industry experts say that fitness clubs in Asia differ from clubs in this country by putting much more emphasis on group exercise and by marketing themselves as places to socialize. “You can’t just go there and install an American model,” Rollauer said.

The premiere Beijing club, according to Mastrov, will be 40,000-square feet plus, with Yao’s likeness prominently featured in signage and marketing. The club will also have a special air purification system, he noted. Such features are needed in Beijing, where the atmosphere is made gritty by heavy manufacturing, rampant construction, the growing number of automobiles and sandstorms blowing in from the Gobi Desert.

“We want to be as green as possible,” Mastrov said. “We have got a purifier for our air. The air is not so great in Beijing.”

Mastrov said Yao is a welcome addition to the company’s roster of superstar athletes, which includes Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong.

“I like Yao as a person. He fits our brand,” said Mastrov, who spent time with Yao in China. “He’s very focused on the environment and on kids. We went to the gym, where there were six Chinese teenagers over 7 feet. He lit up like a candle, showing them how to move in the pivot, how to chase down a loose ball. It was amazing to how energetic he was.”

(Contributed by San Francisco Chronicle)