Isinbayeva rockin' the Li Ning kit

Chinese Shoe Giant Li-Ning Makes Splash In Track & Field

In an already crowded running market, Chinese shoe company Li-Ning has invested large sums of its war chest to become a major player in the world of track and field.

The company’s tactic has been to sponsor not just elite athletes but only the world’s very best. In 2009, Li-Ning signed pole vault queen Yelena Isenbayeva to a five year, $7.5 million endorsement contract, the largest ever reported for a track and field athlete.

The company followed suit in 2010 by inking deals with Norwegian javelin star Andreas Thorkildsen and Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell and locked up two big signings in 2011 – triple jump World Champion Christian Taylor and World long jump bronze medalist Ngonidzashe Makusha.

Li-Ning also sponsors the Sudanese national team led by World 800 meter silver medalist Abubaker Kaki.

The Chinese shoe giant, which reported $1.35 billion in revenue last fiscal year, opened U.S. operations in 2007 with the intention of becoming a major player in the American market. Li-Ning established its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore. in the backyard of chief competitors Nike and Adidas.

Li-Ning even managed to become the primary shoe and apparel sponsor of the Eugene Marathon, an event previously sponsored by Nike.

Even with its hefty investments in running, the company’s expansion in the U.S. has been limited. It currently has one retail outlet in America. Its running shoe line is sold in limited locations in the States.

Recent economic woes have hit Li-Ning hard as the company cut its U.S. staff from an original 30 employees in half to 15. Additionally, a deal to place Li-Ning footwear on the shelves at Champs Sports locations fell through.

So far, the impact of Li-Ning on the track and field market is unknown. The sport benefits from Li-Ning spending millions of dollars on athlete endorsements, but the investment does little good for the company if its products are not on shelves for consumers to purchase.

Minimal presence in America also fails to benefit someone like Taylor in the 2012 Olympic year. Taylor’s personality and talents will not be featured to the extent that Allyson Felix’s or Tyson Gay’s will be with the backing of their big-name sponsors. Neither will he be on billboards or commercials despite taking home a nice paycheck from Li-Ning. Until Li-Ning steps up its game in markets outside of China, it will miss the full benefits of athlete endorsements.

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