Beijing Olympics: Celebrity Star Power

All Yao, all the time: Chinese and global brands are discovering the power of star athletes as sponsors

The Olympic spirit may be all about fair play and but the Olympics business is about getting bang for the buck. Only a handful of Chinese athletes have achieved enough recognition to attract top endorsement deals.

The emergence of top athletes as spokespeople is happening as domestic brands are developing national or even global profiles and international brands are looking for ways to relate to Chinese customers.

“It’s all about building association. The power of a star or sporting hero makes a real impact on brand preference,” said Greg Paull, of marketing consultancy 3R, which is tracking Olympic sponsorships. “The problem is that the top two guys [Yao Ming and Liu Xiang] hog the limelight here in recall.”

Among the handful of athletes attracting sponsorship and endorsement deals are:

YAO MINGBasketballEndorsements: Reebok, Pepsi, Gatorade, McDonald’s, VISA, China Unicom, Apple, Tag Heuer, Sohu, Garmin Street Pilot 300, Sorrent, MIG, Upperdeck, God Milk, Yanjing Beer.

By far the most popular and recognizable Chinese athlete in the world, Yao Ming has virtually created a new profile for Chinese sports. Although he plays with the Houston Rockets in America’s National Basketball Association, he maintains strong links in China, regularly participating in events and charitable activities as well as leading the Olympic basketball team.

LIU XIANGTrack & FieldEndorsements: Nike, Coca Cola, Amwa, Kia, Visa, Yili Dairy, Shanshan Xifu (a state-owned suit company), China Post EMS, Jager, Baisha (a cigarette maker), Loncin Motorcycle, Spring of Sudi Real Estate, Long Xin Motor, Shengda Floor, China Mobile, Konka.

Among Chinese athletes, Liu has the highest profile behind Yao Ming. Full of potential, he delivered on the big stage with a world record win at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Two years later he beat his own record. Liu gets about half the money he earns, which is thought to be the standard for Chinese athletes.

GUO JINGJINGDivingEndorsements: Red Earth cosmetics (Hong Kong), Xizhilang, a food company, Dali Biscuits, Shenzhen International Mansion, McDonald’s, Sprite, Tag Heuer, Budweiser, Yili LGG Yoghurt, Funlinmen Oil, Aodeli, Xizhilang Jelly, Shenzhen International Park.

Guo is China’s “Diving Queen,” with two Olympic gold medals and numerous world titles to her name. She has maintained a high profile in part due to a much-publicized affair with charismatic, and now disgraced, diver Tian Liang. She is a strong favorite for a gold medal in Beijing next year. It has been claimed that the level of Guo’s post-Athens exposure and number of commercial endorsements aroused concern among Chinese officials.

WANG NANTable tennisEndorsements: Ping An Insurance, Jinlaike Sports Shoes, Anerle Napkin, Kingkey Real Estate.

Leader of the Chinese women’s table tennis team following the retirement of Deng Yaping, Wang won gold in both the singles and doubles events at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Disappointment at the 2002 Asian Games had many saying she was on her way out, but this left-handed player rebounded winning four golds at the 2003 World Championships and followed-up with victory in the women’s doubles at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She remains a  favorite with Chinese audiences for her shot placement skills and general speed around the table.

YI JIANLIANBasketballEndorsements: Yili, Amway Nutrilite, Nike, Freestyle (cell phone game launched by Coca-cola), GameKing.

China’s latest export to America’s National Basketball Association, Yi was in the headlines before he even set foot on a court. The former Guangdong Southern Tigers power forward was reportedly unhappy at being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. He made his national team debut at the 2004 Olympics and went on to participate in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, impressing  Chinese and foreign coaches.

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