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Dwyane Wade joins forces with Chinese shoe company



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Updated: November 16, 2012 6:19AM

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Dwyane Wade idolized Michael Jordan and modeled his game after the Bulls legend.

In his 10th NBA season, Wade has two championship rings, and he’s attempting a feat only Jordan successfully pulled off before him: building a brand.

“I never imagined myself as a global icon. Growing up as a kid on the South Side of Chicago, I never dreamed that big for myself or thought the opportunity could ever exist,” Wade said in an email to the Sun-Times. “Which is why I was truly humbled by the press announcement in China. It bought me back to where I came from and where I am today.”

Wade is 30, one of the NBA’s preeminent stars, a key player for the reigning champions, a team some project as a potential dynasty.

But his challenge will be to bridge the gap from China to Chicago, among other markets, making the Li-Ning name — and more important the brand — a global powerhouse on par with the likes of Nike, adidas and Reebok.

It’s a gamble for both athlete and company. Failure can mean an expensive do-over for both.

“We are focused on creating the highest-quality, high-performance products with a fashion-forward look and feel,” said Wade, who will also carry the title of chief brand officer for Li-Ning. “I intend to work very closely with my partners at Li-Ning to create sneakers and apparel that basketball fans worldwide will want to own.”

That’s been the ambition of many before him with lesser-known brands — Shaquille O’Neal and Stephon Marbury, Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber, just to name a few — yet Nike remains the world leader in basketball shoe market shares, with adidas a distant second.

Wade left the Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, to sign with Li-Ning, which provided something unique. According to Sports Illustrated, Wade makes over $12 million in endorsement income. But he’ll make at least an annual base of $10 million for 10 years from Li-Ning alone, according to ESPN.

“Getting equity was important,” said Wade’s agent Henry Thomas of CAA. “At this stage of his career, he is looking for ownership opportunities as opposed to the deals that just provide money in exchange for his endorsement.”

The merger

Li Ning is 49 years old, a three-time Olympic gold medalist gymnast for China.

Despite all the successful athletes the world’s most populous nation has produced, China selected Ning to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

After he retired in 1988, Ning founded Li-Ning, which he steadily developed into a company that now earns $1 billion in revenue annually.

“Li-Ning might seem like an obscure brand to Americans, but it’s an almost omnipresent brand in China,” said Ted Fishman, the author of “China Inc.”

There’s been some turnover at the top of Li-Ning, and its products are in the “Western mode,” Fishman said.

Now comes the hard part.

“It’s safe to say there’s no commonly recognized Chinese brand, even though they make almost all the consumer brands you’d find in a sports store, or appliance store or toy store,” Fishman said. “They sell to the rest of the world, but most of the value that’s extracted goes to the company that markets and sells it, not the company that makes it.”

So Li-Ning could be a trailblazer in China — and Wade will be at the forefront of that effort.

The choice couldn’t have been much better, said Paul Swangard.

“They’re going to give [Wade] keys to the kingdom” said Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “Li-Ning got one of the best guys they could ever hope to get. The brands have to have the right player, at the right position with the right personality.

“There’s just not that many of those guys out there. But I don’t think the Brand Jordan guys are running scared.”

Li-Ning won’t immediately flood U.S. stores with its Wade shoes. But when they do, Chicago will obviously be one of the targeted cities.

“I think it’s very important,” said Brian Cupps, Vice General Manager of basketball. “Dwyane has established himself in Miami, but Chicago is his roots.

“That’s where he came from, and he’s never going to forget that, so we won’t forget that.”

While many before him have failed, Wade’s camp is confident he can buck that trend.

“As he developed as a basketball player, he was never thought to be the best and that has always driven him,” Thomas said. “As a result, he is accustomed to the ‘Against the Odds’ challenges that are presented by this opportunity.

“He is very comfortable in these situations. He will figure it out.”

Even if he doesn’t, though, Wade could cash in and help Li-Ning.

The NBA is wildly popular in China, and Wade is an A-list star.

“People may say, ‘Oh, it’ll never catch on in the United States.’ But if it gives the Li-Ning brand in China more cachet, that’s good enough,” Fishman said.

Handling business on the court

Wade is coming off an All-Star season, averaging 22.1 points and nearly five rebounds and five assists per game. But he’s been slowed by injuries in recent years, missing the London Olympics after a knee procedure. He’s just returning now, and he shot just two of nine for five points in 23 minutes in an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Beijing Thursday.

LeBron James, as usual, led the Heat with 20 points.

Li-Ning certainly believes Wade will remain an elite player.

“We expect and he expects to play at a high level,” Cupps said. “That’s one of the things that make people take notice. He’s not a young kid, but he’s still certainly in the prime of his career, and they’re poised to make a run.

“He’s already won championships. That’s impactful in China. Win on a global scale, there’s a national pride that goes with that.”

Jim Schmidt of Downtown Partners in Chicago noted that James “took over” for the Heat in the postseason, and he insisted Wade can’t afford to let his play slip.

“He’s got to be one of the better guys,” said Schmidt, a partner and creative director at Downtown Partners. “He’s still got to stay at the highest level, certainly for the shoe.

“It’s a second-rate shoe. They don’t have LeBron, Derrick Rose. He’s got to hold up his end.”

But Swangard said there’s a fallback plan for Wade, something he believes was a part of the negotiations with Li-Ning.

“The core of their business is still sales of shoes and apparel in domestic China,” Swangard said. “I would imagine that there was some conversation during the negotiations where someone said, ‘Would you be wiling to play in the [Chinese Basketball Association] for one or two years as a piece of that long-term puzzle?”

Cupps said another important part of the partnership was the connection between Wade and Ning, the founder.

“It’s a great story and its one that we felt paralleled Mr. Li Ning himself,” Cupps said. “They really rose up to defeat and overcome obstacles to achieve amazing accomplishments athletically and now professionally.

“[Wade] respects Mr. Li Ning, who was a trailblazer in China. He chose a different path, and built a billion-dollar business. And Dwyane wants to do that.”

Time will tell if Wade succeeds.

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