Sneaker rebels should re­spect the rules of the game

China Daily (USA) - - BUSINESS - By GAO JIN’AN Con­tact the writer at gao­jin@chi­

On­the last day of Oc­to­ber, the Chi­nese Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion league kick-started its 2016-17 sea­son, with 20 teams fight­ing for the tro­phy. As a fan, the time has come again for me to be glued to the tele­vi­sion screen on Satur­day or Sunday evenings.

Dur­ing the first two rounds, how­ever, what re­ally stole the lime­light and made head­lines was not how well or badly the play­ers per­formed, but a pair of shoes.

It all started with the con­flict be­tween a league spon­sor­ship deal and play­ers’ per­sonal en­dorse­ments of sports­wear brands.

Back in 2012, sports­wear maker Li Ning Co inked a five-year deal with the CBA to be­come the sole of­fi­cial ap­parel and sneaker spon­sor for the league, at a then jaw-drop­ping price of 2 bil­lion yuan ($295 mil­lion). Un­der the con­tract that is to end af­ter this sea­son, Li Ning is en­ti­tled to ban any ri­vals from the league.

Dur­ing the past four sea­sons, Li Ning al­lowed a few big-name play­ers to wear the sneak­ers they per­son­ally en­dorsed, but with lo­gos cov­ered while play­ing on the court. Li Ning sac­ri­ficed some of its busi­ness in­ter­est so that the bas­ket­ball as­so­ci­a­tion could main­tain good re­la­tions with for­eign sports­wear mak­ers, which spon­sor other games or the na­tional team.

In the last sea­son of the spon­sor­ship, how­ever, Li Ning waived that priv­i­lege for those play­ers and re­quired all lo­cal play­ers to wear its sneak­ers. This made some play­ers un­happy and they tried to stage a re­volt.

Play­ers, in­clud­ing Zhou Qi, cen­ter of the Xin­jiang Fly­ing Tigers, and Wang Zhe­lin from the Fu­jian Stur­geons, com­plained in their so­cial me­dia ac­counts that they were de­prived of the right to wear the sneak­ers they pre­fer, and even went fur­ther to say that wear­ing the league spon­sor’s shoes might make them vul­ner­a­ble to in­juries.

The sneaker farce reached its cli­max on Nov 2. Yi Jian­lian, the for­ward of the Guang­dong South­ern Tigers, stopped play­ing, re­moved his Li-Ning sneak­ers, dumped them on the court and di­rectly went to the locker room just a few min­utes into the sec­ond quar­ter. Yi, a Nike sneaker en­dorser, cited dis­com­fort.

The con­se­quence: Yi was sus­pended for one game for the un­ruly ac­tion and his team was fined 50,000 yuan. Yi made an apol­ogy for his in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior.

De­spite the com­plaints and re­bel­lious ac­tions, the league reg­u­la­tor and the spon­sor showed no sign of soft­en­ing the sneaker pol­icy, and the re­bel­lious play­ers had to back down and started to wear the of­fi­cial sneak­ers in the fol­low­ing games. They did so be­cause they are smart enough not to spoil the league in which they have a much big­ger stake.

The sneaker farce should have taught the league reg­u­la­tor, play­ers, spon­sors and the fans a les­son about the spirit of con­tract, which is sup­posed to be the foun­da­tion for all busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties.

The CBA league, sim­i­lar to the long-es­tab­lished NBA of the United States, is in essence a big busi­ness, and the play­ers are just one part of the busi­ness.

When Li Ning paid dearly for the spon­sor­ship, it ex­cluded ri­vals from the games. That is one of the most fun­da­men­tal con­tracts that all par­ties to the league must fol­low and abide by, and shall out­weigh the en­dorse­ment deals that some play­ers like Zhou and Yi have with ri­val brands. Be­cause of their en­dorse­ments, these play­ers are ob­li­gated to bring as much ex­po­sure as pos­si­ble to the brands. Then, the prob­lem of con­flict of in­ter­est emerged, and this was the root cause of the sneaker farce.

For them, their fat wal­lets and fame hinge on a ca­reer in the CBA league, so they need to re­spect the CBA rules, for the good of the league, and more im­por­tantly, their own in­ter­est and fu­ture. When busi­ness ethics win, so will they.

As a fan of the league, my ad­vice for the play­ers and the brands for which the play­ers act as pro­mo­tion am­bas­sadors: In Rome, do as the Ro­mans do, play by the rules and show due re­spect to the spirit of con­tract.


Yi Jian­lian (right) goes to the locker room just a few min­utes into the sec­ond quar­ter dur­ing a game on Nov 2 in Shen­zhen, af­ter re­mov­ing his Li-Ning sneak­ers and dump­ing them on the court.

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