Why Brands Are Drawn to Amateur Sports in China

P.T. Black From Shanghai

By Published on .

Have you bought your tickets yet? Reserved your friend's couch? Hurry up, because we are officially one year away from China's inaugural Olympics. But these Olympics are not just Beijing's debutante ball; they are also a staggeringly huge marketing event.

During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the post-reform generation sat in diapers as their parents were glued to black-and-white TVs, watching gymnast Li Ning win six medals, including three Gold. Li Ning and his peers come from China's demanding state-run athletics system. That program continues today, plucking promising youth from grade school and enrolling them in intensive state-funded athletics.
P.T. Black
P.T. Black is a partner in Jigsaw International, a Shanghai boutique lifestle-research agency that looks at the direction of change in China.

The upshot of this system is that regular kids don't have interaction with the hard-core sports machine. But that's OK with them, because for post-reform Chinese kids, sports are not just about competition, nationalistic or otherwise. For them, sports are play, a chance to de-stress and impress the opposite sex. In recent years Nike, Adidas and homegrown Li Ning (started by that same decorated gymnast) have created a parallel network of tournaments and leagues for regular kids. Whereas state athletics are serious, pressurized and highly competitive, these private activities tend to be fun, hip and, of course, branded.

The result is that the majority of young Chinese are not engaged in or particularly concerned with the official sports system. Why go to a gymnastics match in a dingy gymnasium when the X-Games are happening in a Shanghai skate park? Why watch pokey Chinese basketball players when LeBron James is on TV? Why support the national soccer team that embarrassingly loses to Uzbekistan when Nike (2005 sales in China: $600 million) hosts a basketball tournament with local hip-hop artists? Sports and style are thoroughly intertwined.

This leaves China with a schizophrenic system of (boring) professional sports for the nation and (exciting) amateur sports underwritten by brands. What does that mean for 2008? The worst-case scenario is probably soccer's Asia Cup -- heavily commercialized, nationalistic and disappointing. The best-case scenario would look something like Liu Xiang, 2004's hurdling Gold medalist. Arguably China's biggest sports star, he brings the fun and style of the amateurs to the state's staid program. Of course, his great smile helps a lot. Note to coaches: Recruit dimples.
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