Skateboards tomorrow?

Kia connects with Asian youth through X Games sponsorship

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SHANGHAI--Extreme sports enthusiasts may look like crazy kids. But to Kia Motors Corp., they are also tomorrow’s consumers.

Kia, an affiliate of Hyundai Motor Co., has partnered with ESPN’s global X Games franchise in Asia. This year’s four-day competition in early May featured more than 200 of the best action sports athletes from more than 20 countries and five continents in world-class competition in the sports of skateboarding, BMX freestyle, in-line skating and climbing.

Kia has partnered with the X Games in Asia since 2005. Last year, it signed a three-year deal with ESPN Star Sports, a joint venture between ESPN International and News Corp., to become the title sponsor of the Kia X Games Asia.

Kia’s deal kicked in just as the action sports event relocated to Shanghai’s KIC Jiangwan stadium in 2007. The first X Games Asia event was held in 1998 in Phuket, Thailand, where it remained until 2001. From 2002-2004, it was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In 2005, the event was hosted in Seoul, Korea, before returning to Kuala Lumpur again in 2006.

Until 2009, it will remain in China, a pivotal market for Kia. The country’s car market is booming across all categories, including affordable cars produced by neighboring Asian manufacturers. Kia's first quarter unit sales in 2008 jumped 28% to 37,202, due to strong sales of its Cerato compact sedan. Earlier this month, the company said it aims to nearly double foreign sales by 2010 to 1.9 million vehicles, through growth in China as well as the U.S. market.

Although the South Korean car company’s target market tends to skew older than the X Games audience, partnering with the event is part of a strategic long-term move to brand Kia as a youthful, adventurous company. Kia also wants to instill brand loyalty in a new generation of potential customers, particularly in China.

Interest in extreme sports has grown quickly in cities like Shanghai, which has an international heritage and some of the wealthiest and most trend-conscious teens in the country. Shanghai is home to the largest skateboard park in Asia.

Still, it remains largely a spectator sport in the mainland. China’s one-child policy has prompted cautious parents to support safer sports like table tennis and basketball, if they encourage kids to take part in sports activities at all.

To foster education about extreme sports and help Chinese teens learn the ropes, ESPN Star Sports organized a four-stop road show in Beijing and Shanghai, starting in late March. The roadshows featured demonstrations of BMX freestyle and in-line skating, musical performances and entertainment acts, prize giveaways and an interactive mini-skate park for spectators to test their skills. Next year, the sports broadcaster plans four additional shows, all in different parts of Shanghai.

Kia is using the X Games, said Hyong-Keun Lee, senior executive VP and chief operating officer for the company’s international business division in Seoul, to “support young Gen X and Y athletes again in China, where we have been focusing many of our efforts. The passion for action sports shown at the X Games falls directly in line with our young-at-heart and adventurous brand aspirations.”

If Kia has a new product launch coming up, it may showcase the new model at the event, said Harvey Davis, Singapore-based managing director of ESPN Star Sports. “But they don’t use it to push any particular car. For Kia, it’s more a branding effort to connect their company with a cool and trendy event.”

As the title sponsor, Kia has naming rights for the events. It is also featured in signage, on-air sponsorship, and in all marketing and PR in online and print media. Kia has airtime for TV spots within the programming on ESPN Star Sports, organizer of the X Games. Programming runs across Asia as well as on ESPN feeds in Australia, the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

Kia’s deal is a global first, said Mr. Davis, who declined to reveal how much the car company paid for title sponsorship status. “ Kia is in a unique position. Asia is the only X Games event that has a title sponsor. There’s not one in the U.S., London or Dubai. In other markets, they haven’t found the right partner, but we think it works for Kia’s brand and it works for us.”

ESPN Star Sports also signed up Pony, an American footwear brand, as a sponsor of the X Games in Asia. The sports apparel brand is “popular in the U.K., and is now looking to use X Games as a platform to build their brand in Asia, focusing on China,” Mr. Davis said. Howard Johnson, Shanghai Times newspaper and ETicket are supplier-level sponsors.

Kia has invested in sports marketing deals outside Asia as well. It sponsors tennis tournaments like the Australian Open and the Davis Cup, for example, and has partnered with UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations and the National Basketball Association (NBA). It is also a top-tier FIFA sponsor, with an agreement that includes the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. In China, Kia is the official automotive partner of the Chinese men’s and women’s national football teams.

“It consistently goes out and chooses the best opportunity,” said Mr. Davis. “They’ve taken what is the leading action sports event in the market and claimed it for themselves.”
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