Li Ning Signs $7.5M Deal to Advance its International Cred With Young Chinese

Chinese Sportswear Firm Signs Five-Year Sponsorship Deal with Russian Pole Vault Queen Yelena Isinbayeva

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Yelena Isinbaeva (left) and Li Ning, the namesake of Li Ning Co. and a former Olympic gymnast
Yelena Isinbaeva (left) and Li Ning, the namesake of Li Ning Co. and a former Olympic gymnast
BEIJING ( -- The leading Chinese sportswear marketer, Li Ning Co., has signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Yelena Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic pole vault gold medalist and world record holder.

The size of the agreement was not disclosed but it is believed to be worth $7.5 million, making it one of the largest endorsement deals to date in the track-and-field circuit. Li Ning will make competition and training gear for the Russian pole vaulter and she will also appear in advertising for the brand. Ms. Isinbaeva was the Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and 2008 and has broken 26 world records.

Li Ning hopes the investment will help its own performance against foreign brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma, Reebok and Converse, all of which are aggressively building their own brands in China. They generally outsell local brands in China's largest and wealthiest cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Local brands, meanwhile, traditionally have outperformed international sportswear marketers in smaller cities and town. But foreign rivals have become better at managing distribution and sales in China's second and third tier cities while disposable incomes there continue to rise.

At the same time, teens and young adults, once isolated by their remote location, now stay current on the latest trends in China's top cities as well as overseas. Armed with knowledge and eager for the status associated with foreign marketers, they are gravitating towards Nike, Adidas and other brands as quickly as their spending power permits.

To help defeat foreign rivals, Chinese sportswear marketers increasingly are turning to deals with global sports stars to give their brands a more international image.

Li Ning is an official marketing partner of the National Basketball Association and has sponsorship deals with four U.S. players: Baron Davis of the Los Angeles Clippers, Shaquille O'Neal of the Phoenix Suns, Damon Jones of the Milwaukee Bucks, and José Calderón of the Toronto Raptors.

The company also sponsors the national basketball teams of Spain and Argentina and the tennis player Ivan Ljubicic. The company has even gone so far as to create ad campaigns shot in Africa to make its brand appear more international than Chinese.

Anta, China's second largest sportswear brand, signed its own sponsorship deal with one of the world's top tennis players last month. Jelena Jankovic will exclusively wear Anta sports apparel, shoes and accessories worldwide and Anta will develop a Jelena Jankovic range of sports products under the JJ brand.

Li Ning and Anta have also invested in foreign expertise for research and development and product design and both companies have long term relationships with international ad agencies. Li Ning works with Leo Burnett, Beijing, and Anta gave its creative business to a former Nike agency in China, JWT, Shanghai.

Li Ning is actively courting the ambition and worldly aspirations of young Chinese with its tagline for the Isinbayeva deal: "The sky is not the limit for me." To the outside world, however, Li Ning as well as Anta remain very Chinese brands, even to Ms. Isinbaeva, who said at the signing ceremony in Beijing, "I like this Oriental brand, which is marching towards the international market and has occupied an important position in the international competition arena."

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