China Consumer

A 2.8 billion foot market

Local sport brands struggle to keep pace with Nike and Adidas


Li Ning: seen its market share roughly half since 2010

Is it okay to wear trainers on a blind date? The answer appears to be a resolute no if you are a Chinese millennial male looking for love.

A weibo exchange between a 27 year-old R&D engineer from Alibaba and his date has gone viral in China after he posted a screenshot of their conversation on the tech giant’s official site. In it, the girl says she is not interested in a second date and does not like the fact he turned up in XTEP trainers, a local sport brand.

Initially, a few voices (largely male) concluded that she is simply mercenary. “She didn’t realise how rich he was,” said one.

However, they were soon shot down for being male chauvinist pigs, or MCPs as they are popularly known in Chinese slang. Most netizens have instead commended the girl for her independence and decision to repay him the money for dinner.

“Shoes were only the excuse,” noted one. “She just didn’t like you.”

“She knew how rich you were,” added another. “But so what? Do all you MCPs think that’s what it takes to look like a king?”

Aside from what it says about the minefield of Chinese modern dating, the incident has also sparked debates about how poorly local sportswear brands are doing versus foreign peers like Nike.

The data as a whole is encouraging for the sector: it shows that sportswear is becoming more common as daywear. And flaunting luxury brands is not the ultimate social marker it once was. Euromonitor reports that sportswear sales should surpass luxury brand sales by 2020. Growing gym membership is also turbo-charging growth.

The market research firm says Chinese citizens spent Rmb1.5 trillion ($230 billion) on sports and fitness goods in 2016, with clothing accounting for 70%. The market is expected to expand by another 20% to 42% over the next five years.

However, National Business Day says that while “the pie is getting bigger, it isn’t getting sweeter for domestic brands”.

Nike has long been China’s dominant sports brand and its market share is still climbing, up from 12.1% in 2010 to 18.6% in 2016 according to Euromonitor. Right behind it is Adidas, up from 9.5% to 16.4% over the same period.

Domestic brands led by Anta, Li Ning and XTEP have not fared as well. Anta has made some gains and is up from 9.5% to 10.3% since 2010. But Li Ning and XTEP have both respectively dropped from 9.7% and 5.1% to 5.6% and 4.9%.

Yet the data is slightly misleading since all three domestic brands have spent the past few years recovering from a downturn caused by overexpansion following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Having shut shops and trimmed debt, they have refocused their efforts on brand building through more attractive shops and better marketing.

Some are shaping up to be far more formidable future competitors and have been rewarded with strong share price performance. Anta, for instance, is now trading at 23 times current year earnings, above its all-time peak of 22 times. Its share price has doubled in the space of two years.

Anta aspires to overtake Nike by 2020, although few doubt how challenging this ambition will be. Copying Nike’s VaporMax bubble sole was not one of its better moves in 2017, for example (the backlash forced it to pull the product). New Balance also won a landmark court case against copycats last year when a Shanghai court awarded $1.5 million in damages against companies ripping off its sloping ‘N’ logo.

International brands are investing big to stay ahead too. Adidas, for example, recently opened a megastore in Beijing which includes a free basketball court and hosts events such as its YY Basketball Nights (YY is a high-end Adidas sub-brand designed by Yohji Yamamoto).

At its recent investor day, Nike observed that China’s retail landscape is changing rapidly, squeezing out mediocre brands. The latest victim is one of China’s early stars, Deerway, which has collapsed after a six-year decline triggered by its founder’s death from cancer.

Deerway was the sportswear brand that once beat Anta to secure the endorsement of the Mandopop king, Jay Chou. “Who now remembers his ‘On My Way’ slogan’?” asks

“Consumer tastes change,” it concludes. “The 80s and 90s generation has grown up. You can’t blame them for finding new favourites if companies do nothing to stay in the public eye.”

And as for that 27 year-old Alibaba engineer, it might be safest if he turns up for his next blind date in a pair of Nike or YY sneakers.

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