Big news on the sneaker front comes in the announcement that Dwyane Wade has left Nike for Chinese sneaker brand Li-Ning. While other NBA players have signed with Chinese sneaker companies, DWade’s signing is clearly something more significant than any of the previous defections to the Great Wall. Is this an anomaly, or a sign of the times?
Clearly Nike remains the sneaker superpower, and this doesn’t really change much for them. Nike remains the market share 800-pound gorilla, and they still can boast the greatest roster of superstars on the planet. They remain the standard bearer.
But this signing is more than an anomaly. It signals two key issues worth taking note of:
1. China is for real. Superstar athletes generally rely on their sneaker company to help build their brands, especially in the US. Nike helped create the iconic brands of MJ, Tiger Woods, LeBron and most athlete icons we’ve seen emerge over the past 20 years. Yes, these guys all had additional sponsors to help create their brands, but Nike was always the cornerstone.
I think Wade’s decision says as much about the growing importance of the Chinese market as it does about his brand preference. Wade realizes that while the US remains critical to his branding, China is just as important. Not coincidentally, this news comes at the same time that T-Mac announced that he is going to play in China next year. Players who are loved in China can earn a tremendous amount of additional revenue, and add years to their revenue producing lifespan. Chinese fans are savvy, and players who pay attention to China are rewarded with fan loyalty and new revenue streams.
2. Li-Ning is for real. In 2008, BDA was involved is a groundbreaking (and foreshadowing) deal between Baron Davis and Li-Ning. That deal was a signal that Li-Ning was a real option for NBA players seeking alternatives to US shoe brands. Other deals quickly followed, and suddenly Chinese sneaker companies like Anta, 361, Peak and Luyou were signing players (especially Rockets-thanks due to Yao Ming) as well.
Just a few years back, many Chinese shoe companies would sign NBA stars and hope for the best. Perhaps they would shoot a TVC and buy some media time. But they were still figuring things out. Li-Ning’s signing of D-Wade signals a quantum leap in their commitment to, and understanding of, the power of aligning with an NBA superstar.
Without having talked to Wade’s people, I’m certain they entered the deal with confidence in Li-Ning’s activation plan. This wasn’t about the money. This was about Wade’s commitment to China, and to helping a new partner move the needle. Li-Ning wouldn’t have landed Wade without a fully developed, strategic marketing program to activate the partnership. This deal is a game changer. Let’s keep an eye on how things develop, but doubters who wrote off all of the Chinese shoe companies may have spoken too soon.