Li Na: 116 Million People Can’t be Wrong. Another Look at her Amazing French Open Ratings

Li Na

Take all the people who watched Game 5 of the NBA Finals with LeBron and Dwyane and Dirk, and add to that the people who watched the NCAA Championship Game between Butler and UConn.

From there, add everyone who watched The Decision. Plus Kobe Bryant and the Lakers playing Game 7 in the NBA Finals last year against Boston. Plus all of the first four games in the Stanley Cup finals this year. Heck, throw in everyone who watched the American Idol finale.

You know what it adds up to? (Warning: This will not connect well with the American sports psyche.)

It adds up to fewer people than watched the French Open women’s singles tennis final last Saturday.

No, not in the U.S., where just under two million watched the match. In China, 116 million people watched Li Na become the first Chinese major singles champ, beating Francesca Schiavone. But this isn’t to report the ratings, which came out a week ago. Instead it’s about what these numbers mean to American sensibilities. Be honest: We think of ourselves as the center of the sports world.

But Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals drew 12.9 million viewers. Nine times that many people watched Li in China.

Doesn’t a sport have to do well in the U.S. to be popular and healthy? Honestly, I sort of think it does. How many Americans know that soccer is popular everywhere else, but won’t really make it big until it makes it in the U.S.? There is just too much money here, and such a celebrity culture.

Here’s the truth: Most Americans think of the Williams sisters or Maria Sharapova when they think about women’s tennis. Other than that, they think the sport is dead. But these TV ratings in China are just so overwhelming they make you re-think.

Yes, population difference factors in. China has 1.3 billion people and the U.S. has just over 300 million. China has roughly four times the U.S. population. Yet, if you multiplied by four, then, the number of people who watched Game 5 of the NBA Finals in the U.S., it come to about 52 million. That means the NBA Finals had less than half the penetration in the U.S. that the French women’s final had in China.

It would take some real creativity from Nike to make Li marketable in the U.S. with her broken English. It worked OK with Yao Ming. But even Rafael Nadal isn’t well-marketed here.

CNBC business reporter Darren Rovell said it won’t matter if Li doesn’t mean much in the U.S.: “She won’t have time to sell here. Not worth it. Too much in China.’’

We don’t matter?

When UConn beat Butler in the NCAA Championship game, 21 million Americans watched. The Final Four had less penetration among U.S. TV watchers than Li did in China.

The first four games of the Stanley Cup Finals averaged 3.4 million viewers in the U.S. Multiply that by four and you 13.6 million viewers, about one-ninth of what that tennis match meant in China. I’m never sure how accurate these ratings numbers are in the U.S., and now it’s a stretch to another level to know whether China’s ratings are accurate. But this is what we have to work with.

When LeBron James had his look-at-me TV fest, The Decision? That drew 9.95 million U.S. viewers. Last year’s NBA Finals Game 7, Lakers-Celtics, Kobe Bryant? It had 28 million viewers. That’s almost, but not quite, the same penetration as the tennis match in China.

The most-watched TV show in U.S. history was this year’s Super Bowl, which had 111 million viewers in this country. But a typical NFL regular season game this past season had 20 million. The American Idol finale, 29.3 million.

It’s true that China doesn’t have nearly as many TV networks as the U.S. has. Viewers didn’t have a lot of options when Li was playing. Still, that only adds to her marketability.

It always bugs me that major tennis moments come at the same time as other major U.S. sporting events. It just adds to the way tennis is overshadowed in the U.S. The Australian Open is deep in the NFL playoffs.  Wimbledon is over July 4 weekend. The U.S. Open final comes at the same time as the NFL season opener.

How stupid. And how can a sport with a serious lack of interest in the U.S. not even bother to have a tour-level event in such a major city as Chicago?

While it seems ridiculous to just throw away a country with a lot of money and sports interest, it is possible for a sport to have a boom, and to do just fine, gulp, without the U.S.


About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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