ATHLETIC SPONSORSHIPS SEEN AS KEY

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BEIJING-The race between Nike and Reebok to win the hearts and feet of China's sports fans accelerated in March with Reebok's promotional bombshell that it is sponsoring and outfitting China's famed national track and field team.

In Reebok International's biggest marketing push in China so far, a cadre of leading company officials flew here to make the announcement. When asked whether Reebok might find it a long sprint in China-where rival Nike has an eight-year head start-Reebok Co-President and Chief Marketing Officer Roberto Muller answered: "We're going to kick their butt."

Nike officials were skeptical.

"We have a little bit of a jump on our competition," said Dan Loeb, general manager of Nike China, which has been selling here since 1984. "Reebok has said they're going to kick our butts a lot, and in a lot of different places. We'll see."

Reebok's announcement that it had signed an agreement with the Athletic Association of China to become the exclusive supplier of shoes and clothing to more than 600 track and field athletes, coaches and officials, is the latest volley in the competitive Chinese sports sponsorship game.

Nike sponsors China's national basketball and tennis teams, and various pro and semi-pro soccer teams.

Reebok, which has been distributing in China since 1992, also sponsors the Guangzhou Apollo and Qingdao soccer teams, and has an agreement giving it access to signboards in China's sports stadiums.

Though Mr. Muller did not say how much money Reebok was paying for the right to clothe the track and field team, it was high enough to warrant the participation of nearly all of China's top sports officials in the signing ceremony.

Whatever the price, Mr. Muller said it was worth it.

"Every day in the newspapers, you're going to see the results of local sports," he said, indicating there would be a spillover effect on the Reebok brand. "That eventually becomes a subconscious reality and kids become aware of Reebok as an athletic brand."

To ink the deal, Reebok booted Japanese shoemaker Mizuno Corp. from its former position as sole sponsor of the China Track & Field Federation.

Said Yasuhiro Kawaguchi, who handles Mizuno's advertising in China: "Apparently, Reebok is willing to pay more than Mizuno. It's very simple."

For Mizuno, the sponsorship, handled in-house, actually benefited the company in the Japanese market. The Chinese women's long-distance runners are very famous in Japan, and seeing them in Mizuno shoes was good for its image at home. Mr. Kawaguchi said Mizuno hasn't sold its product in China yet but is planning an in-house campaign for Shanghai.

In a country where a pair of Reeboks can cost several months' salary, most of China's vast 1.2 billion-person shoe market is out of the running. But Mr. Muller says his strategy is to get out on the track.

"There is already in the south, and already growing in the north, a minute portion of the population that can afford" Reeboks, Mr. Muller said.

"As the gross national product continues to grow and you see the economy becoming the most powerful economy in the world, you're going to see that recycled into people who can afford product," he added. "We truly believe that we have to seed the investment now for the future."

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