The NFL is the most popular sports league in United States and USA is the largest market for the NFL inside the United States. But what sposts league is the most popular in China. National Basketball Association, The NBA is the most popular sports league in China and China is the largest market for the NBA outside the United States by a large margin thanks in a large part to Yao Ming. But, before we get into the "NBA IN CHINA" talk, let's start at the beginning with Michael Jordan. Actually, we should thank Michael Jordan, the most famous basketball player in USA. Of course, Jordan is still the most famous baketball player in China and in the whole world. Chinese fans get to know the NBA at the beginning of Michael Jordan.
Yao is a transformational player, who does so much for the game of basketball in China and outside of China. He is really a catalyst back when he is drafted in 2002 to a whole new generation of fans, who growes a great interest in watching NBA basketball.
Basketball in general is very big in China. It really spreads from people who have a basic knowledge of the game (everybody knows at least Yao, Yi, Wang Zhizhi) to people who follow the league regularly. It isn't like in Europe where just a limited number of people know the NBA and the featured players.
How big basketball is, you have to go to some places which are in general off-limits to foreigners to really sense the vibe. I happened to be in a very small village in rural Guangxi and I was told that they feature basketball tournaments of all adjacent villages each year. And that place didn't even have any electricity to even consume internet, TV and thus NBA.