But like Jordan, Li is discovering that knee ligaments and marketing formulas don't last forever. Li is uncharacteristically absent from his company's latest mainland advertising campaign, a $2.4 million TV blitz that coincides with World Cup broadcasts. The ads, featuring no-name characters wearing Li Ning Sports gear, are part of a corporate image overhaul to get younger, more affluent Chinese to wear the brand. Li, now 39, isn't recognizable to a hipper generation that follows NBA basketball and the English Premier League on TV. Fans "used to come by the thousands when I opened outlets," Li says with a sigh. "Senior local officials, mayors, even local provincial governors. Today, only a few people show up. I wish I were still as popular as I used to be. But I guess that's a fact of life."
Since retiring from gymnastics in 1988, Li has built his company into a credible challenger in China to Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Li Ning Sports currently holds a 10% share of the mainland's athletic-shoe market, outselling all foreign brands combined. Aided by more than 1,000 Li Ning Sports specialty shops scattered around the country, sales have grown at an annual average rate of 32% for the past three years; profits were $8.5 million last year on $108 million in revenue. The numbers may not sound impressiveóNike's 2001 global sales were $9.48 billionóbut it's a good showing in a developing economy with a highly fragmented market of more than 4,000 sports-shoe and apparel makers.
The company has been able to grow primarily by tapping market segments the global brands largely ignore. Li Ning shoesódistinguished by a logo that resembles Nike's famous swoosh, but with a foxtail attachedósell for $40 dollarsóless than half the price of top-of-the-line foreign sneakers. They are popular in rural China, but not in the country's wealthier coastal cities, where residents prefer foreign brands. Li Ning Sports "is an old brand and it certainly needs revitalization," says Xue Xu, a marketing professor at Peking University and an expert on domestic brands. Moreover, Xue says there is "danger ahead" because Nike has recently given endorsement contracts to Chinese basketball sensations Wang Zhizhi, who plays for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA, and towering center Yao Ming, the No. 1 draft pick of the Houston Rockets.
Li Ning Sports hopes to maintain home-court advantage by attacking the foreign brands in metropolitan China, in part by exploiting growing national pride during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing. The company recently hired ad agency Leo Burnett Beijing and set aside $11 million for marketing this year, one of the biggest corporate-marketing budgets in China. Higher-end product lines, created with the help of top sports-shoe designers Massimiliano Zago of Italy and Paviot Jean-Philippe of France, are being added to counteract the brand's bargain-bin tinge.
For his part, Li, who holds an executive masters degree in business administration from Peking University and completes a law degree this month, says he's accustomed to international competition and knows how to adjust his game. "To improve, you must give up some of your old habits," Li says. By stepping out of the limelight, the former Olympian figures he can help the team.