By Joseph O'Leary
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Basketball sensation Jeremy Lin's brief but spectacular run in the Big Apple is over. Now the question is whether "Linsanity" can play as well in Texas.
The National Basketball Association player, a Taiwanese-American who shot from obscurity in February to spark a fan frenzy from Broadway to Beijing, is no longer a member of the New York Knicks.
The team declined to match Lin's three-year, $25.1 million offer from the Houston Rockets before midnight on Tuesday, clearing the way for the Harvard-educated point guard to head to the Lone Star State.
For seven weeks this past winter, Lin's electrifying and often unselfish play created a fan and media frenzy. New York tabloids and others dubbed the phenomenon as "Linsanity," "Linspirational," "Linflation" and Lin as "Mr. Lincredible" and "Super Lintendo."
Attending Knicks games at New York's Madison Square Garden meant you ran with "The Lin Crowd."
For all the fanfare, though, Lin only started 25 games -- averaging 18.2 points and 7.7 assists a game -- and a knee injury in late March sidelined him for the rest of the season.
But the brevity of his time on the court didn't dent his popularity.
At the end of the 2012 regular season, the NBA counted U.S. sales of Lin's No. 17 Knicks jersey as second only to Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose. Sales of Knicks merchandise also jumped to second place in the league, behind the Bulls.
Last week, Lin won an ESPN "ESPY Award" from sports fans as the best breakthrough athlete of the year. Two NBA teams had previously given up on Lin before his opportunity with the Knicks.
Sports business experts said the Lin marketing phenomenon will be put to a serious test when he left New York City, the NBA's biggest market and a global media "Lintropolis."
"Houston is a good market, but it doesn't have the history of the Knicks," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, who has written more than a dozen books about sports business.
The New York area's nearly 20 million people outnumbers Houston's population by more than 3 to 1. That alone should lead to a drop in sales, Zimbalist said.
Lin's health is another issue. He had knee surgery in the off season.
"Is he durable? Can he play 80 games, 40 minutes per game? No one knows," said Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas at Austin.
RISKS FOR KNICKS, ROCKETS
Still, he should remain popular in Asia, particularly since Houston has an existing positive association for NBA fans in China, said Robert Boland, the academic chair of New York University's Tisch Center and a former sports agent.
The legacy forged by Yao Ming, the towering center from Shanghai who was the Rockets' most notable player for the better part of a decade, means Houston's brand may be as strong as New York's overseas, he said. Lin also played briefly with the Chinese Basketball Association's Dongguan Leopards in the summer of 2011, winning MVP honors in the three-game tournament.
Opting not to re-sign Lin could pose a risk for the Knicks as well.
After he exploded onto the scene in February, the team's TV ratings rose to season highs, according to the MSG Network, and Knicks ticket prices on re-sale markets also saw hefty double-digit gains, according to TiqIQ, which tracks ticket sales on markets like eBay and StubHub.
As of Tuesday, an online petition by Knicks fans wanting the team to re-sign Lin had more than 12,000 signatures.
Boland doesn't think it will have a great effect. "The Knicks, from a managerial standpoint, are showing great restraint and focusing on a basketball level," he said.
"They'll survive," agreed Cramer, adding that Lin's new contract was big enough to make an argument that the Knicks had made a smart business move.
"Houston faces most of the risk, if he proves to be a good, not great, player, and they pay him like a great player," Boland said.
Houston should get a bump in name recognition and ticket sales, said Cramer, who added that it was too early to say whether Lin would be worth his salary.
(Reporting by Joseph O'Leary; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)