Li-Ning Signs Dwyane Wade, Will the West Follow?

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In China, it’s been a late week whirlwind of pro basketball moves, both on and off the court. Just as news hit that NBA star Tracy McGrady had signed to play for a Chinese team — Yes, in China! — Dwayne Wade officially confirmed the rumors that he had switched sneaker affiliation from Nike to China’s Li-Ning brand.

Timed to coincide with the much anticipated two games Wade’s team, the Miami Heat, will play against the Los Angeles Clippers in Beijing and Shanghai this week, the Li-Ning announcement was long in the making. In fact, maybe a year in the making. Now, will Wade lead Li-Ning back to glory, and will it drag the reputations of China’s brands with it?[more]

At a special event, Wade appeared alongside Li Ning, the Olympic gold medalist and founder of Li-Ning. In a press release, the sports apparel and footwear brand announced that Wade would wear “specially-created, high performance” Li-Ning sneakers for the two Heat-Clipper exhibition games. It added that Wade will officially be Li-Ning’s “Chief Brand Officer.”

Li-Ning’s PR team worked the announcement over like Wade does to a defense. Wade took over the brand’s website. On Twitter, Li-Ning was retweeting tweets of the announcement and answering questions about limited editions and colors.

Wade even threw in his part, tweeting (alongside a picture of his shoes and Li-Ning shirt) “Going for a late night workout in china.” True, Wade’s Instagram pic included the Adidas logo on his hat, but, cut the guy some slack, the time difference is murder on thinking clearly.

But the large scale launch event was clearly some time in the making. Complex magazine spoke with Li-Ning’s VP manager of basketball and its creative director of basketball and learned that, during production design last year, “the brand was prepping to sign a new basketball player, they just weren’t sure who it would be.”

For Li-Ning, the Wade deal has a great deal of potential on two fronts.

In the United States, where Li-Ning has struggled, it represents a fresh opportunity to introduce the brand through the sportswear maker’s biggest star partner to date. With the marketing speak bells and whistles removed, this means Li-Ning hopes American kids will think, “Gee, if Dwayne Wade wears them they must be good.”

Meanwhile, in China, where Wade has been on very god terms with fans for years, the deal — with one of the biggest stars of the most followed professional sport in the nation — means a shot in the arm and a chance to win back a large chunk of the market share the brand has seen slip away and its stock price crash to earth. The very picture of Li-Ning’s namesake, and interim CEO, Li Ning on the red carpet alongside Dwayne Wade should be good for a 4 to 5 percent stock increase, or so Li-Ning hopes. The Li-Ning press release even highlighted Wade’s long relationship with the nation, while the Los Angeles Times asks if this deal is “the wave of the future.”

On China’s version of Twitter, Weibo, fans were passing around the news of “韦德之道,” or a rough translation of “Way of Wade.” It’s a slick little play on the Chinese word “道,” which can mean “path,” but is also the root for that mystical Eastern philosophical practice of Daoism. In one example that should make Li-Ning very happy, user PG-15号废柴 posted a photo of his new Li-Nings and the note, “Look. Way of Wade… First time ever thought of Li-Ning as the pinnacle of basketball… don’t know if this can be outdone.” Another, 皓月当空hou, wrote, “Waah, my idol signed with Li-Ning.”

In a YouTube video posted to Li-Ning’s site, Wade appears in a “Way of Wade” t-shirt, with Chinese wording that translates closely to “For the Fans Wear,” and speaks of a “new adventure” and how the “10/10” logo represents Oct. 10, the start of that new adventure. That 10/10 might also represent the first day of a new era for China’s brands looking for a little respect overseas.

When the rumor of the switch first swirled, we speculated about whether or not a Wade endorsement could not only help Li-Ning, but also shift American consumer perceptions about the quality of Chinese brand names.

The night of the game, Wade missed a dunk while wearing his Li-Nings, which made for perfect joke material. That kind of reaction will probably be something Wade and Li-Ning will need to weather for the foreseeable future. Americans have long since been used to its athletes in German and British sportswear, accepting them in Chinese brands will be a new, though surmountable, challenge. But so far, the brand is headed in the right direction, garnering a boatload of good, positive brand publicity in US media and sneaker press. Yes, the US has sneaker press.

Meanwhile, Wade’s high profile, perfectly timed Li-Ning deal could not be more poorly timed for Nike. The Swoosh is currently aching in China, which analysts estimate is the source of about 30% of its operating profit. Nike recently saw just 7 percent growth in what should be its fastest growing market. But Nike sees this as halftime. In an earnings call, Nike CEO Mark Parker said, “China offers more opportunity for Nike today than it ever has.”

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