Hurting at home, China sports brand Li Ning courts US glitz

HONG KONG/SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - China's biggest sportswear brand, Li Ning Co Ltd, launched its newest brand at a gala event in Texas last month with US basketball star Dwayne Wade, resplendent in gold bow tie and plaid suit, showing off sports shoes he helped design.

But his fans can't buy them yet.

Li Ning, founded by the Chinese Olympic gymnast of the same name, has no stores in the United States and recently shut the e-commerce section of its US website.

While luring Wade from rival Nike Inc last year in a sponsorship deal worth an estimated US$100 million (S$125 million) over 10 years is a major coup for the Chinese firm, it has left analysts puzzling the logic of splashing out on an expensive NBA superstar with no apparent US retail strategy in place.

Sports industry analysts said the Wade signing was more about marketing to Chinese consumers than trying to build brand recognition in the United States, where Nike and its Jordan brand control 90 percent of the basketball shoe market.

"The primary idea here is to say to the Chinese consumer,'One of the best players in the NBA is wearing our shoes and you should too,'" said Mr Matt Powell, an analyst with Boulder, Colorado-based sporting goods research group SportsOneSource.

The Chinese firm is paying top dollar for an elite athlete just as Nike and other established sportswear brands are scaling back on big-name endorsements because of disappointing returns.

A decade ago, Nike reportedly paid Wade's superstar teammate Lebron James more than US$90 million for a 7-year contract, but high-potential rookie players now command shoe contracts worth just US$1-US$2 million a year, Mr Powell said. James is the world's fourth highest-paid athlete with endorsements bringing in US$40 million a year, according to a Forbes ranking as of June 2012.

Wade ranked 35th, with US$12 million a year in endorsements.

"It (the Wade deal) has a positive effect in boosting Li Ning's image ... but it doesn't necessarily generate more sales," said Ms Elyse Wang, an analyst at Haitong International Research in Shenzhen. "The deal is not justified as for sure it's offering a very high price."

Li Ning declined to comment on details of the Wade deal.

Nike declined to comment on Li Ning's strategy.

Li Ning, valued at around US$600 million, is expected to report a net loss of close to 1.1 billion yuan (S$219 million) on Monday, according to Thomson Reuters SmartEstimate, after spending as much as US$288 million to buy back unwanted inventory from its distributors. Turnover is forecast to have dropped 16 percent last year to around 7.5 billion yuan.

A recent visit to one of Shenzhen's busy shopping areas, where Li Ning and local rivals had stores last year, showed the company had shut up shop and moved to an upper floor of a nearby department store. Rivals ANTA Sports Products Ltd and 361 Degrees International Ltd were still at street level, though their stores were full of old stock.

Like industry peers, Li Ning raced to open hundreds of stores in the afterglow of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but has been forced to retreat as sales have slumped. Li Ning shares have tumbled 86 percent from an April 2010 peak - the Hang Seng Index is up 2.3 percent over the same period - and 15 of 22 analysts who track the stock rate it a"sell" or "strong sell", Thomson Reuters data show.

A burst of excitement over new Wade gear would give a much-needed boost, but none was sighted in Shenzhen stores last week.

"They're out to prove that they, and by extension Chinese brands, can compete head-to-head with the global giants. The issue is that they're having trouble being successful at it," said Mr James Roy, senior analyst at China Market Research Group.

Li Ning has also kept its US plans tightly under wraps.

Its website, which offered online shopping as recently as February, is now just a single page linking to another bare-bones site promoting Wade. Calls to a US customer service number during business hours were answered by a recorded message directing customers to send an email. A Reuters reporter seeking comment from the firm's US headquarters in Chicago was advised that all queries must go through the China office.

Mr Will DeGirolamo, an executive at PR firm DiGennaro Communications that represents Li Ning's brand initiative director Brian Cupps, said there would be more news soon on the Wade deal, including the US launch of a new line of sneakers. "The sneakers will be available for the first time in the US in early April," Mr DeGirolamo said.

In an emailed response to Reuters questions for this article, the company's founder said: "The recent successful launch of the Wade brand is a great example of the high performance, high quality product lines that we are developing for our customers. The response so far has been very positive and we look forward to sharing 'The Way of Wade' with fans across the U.S. and China."

Not having shoes on the market now means Li Ning may be missing out on a golden opportunity as Wade's team, the Miami Heat, is on a run of 25 straight wins, the second-longest streak in NBA history after the Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game run in 1971-72. Li Ning sponsors the Miami Heat and has previously signed one of Wade's former teammates, Shaquille O'Neal, who retired in 2011.

SportsOneSource's Powell said sales of Lebron James' shoes were at an all-time high thanks to the Heat's success. Nike reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings on Thursday, and future orders for delivery in March-July rose 11 percent in its North American market.

Other Chinese sportswear brands have struggled to turn NBA endorsements into sales success. ANTA, which signed Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett to an endorsement deal in 2010 and featured him on the cover of its annual report, saw its 2012 profits fall by more than a fifth.

"NBA stars have a very big influence in (the sportswear market in) China," ANTA's chief operating officer Lai Shixian told Reuters in February, adding the company would consider more endorsements for suitable athletes.

Mr Powell said even Nike was finding it tough to turn big-name endorsements into profits, noting it was only now making money off Lebron James gear, a decade after signing him. "Athletes just don't sell product like they used to," he said.

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