Basketball fans had high hopes for Andrew Wiggins when he began his NBA career as the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. The Canadian was known as the ‘Maple Jordan’ – a reference to his country’s arborial national symbol – but Wiggins was soon being described as a ‘bust’, a reference to players who don’t fulfill their potential and turn into superstars.
This all changed last month when the 27 year-old helped the Golden State Warriors win the NBA finals and defeat the Boston Celtics 4-2 in a best-of-seven series, leaving fans to wonder what had changed. Those watching especially carefully may have noticed one visible and possibly game-changing difference: his shoes.
Wiggins signed a multi-year contract with Chinese sportswear company Peak in 2020 – the same year he joined the Warriors – and has never looked back, or so it seems. The Chinese firm might have thought they had got a good deal as well, by securing a brand ambassador who would then star in the biggest stage of basketball.
However, “Peak’s the biggest loser” soon became a trending topic in Chinese social media after the widely followed NBA playoff season.
Why? During a number of crucial matches during the Warriors’ playoff run, Chinese fans spotted that he’d traded in his usual Peak shoes for a pair of Nikes, only hiding the American brand’s iconic swoosh behind a piece of black tape.
Was it the shoes that lifted his game? Onlookers in China were quick to call into question if he’d breached a contract with Peak.
Wiggins quickly explained on Sina Weibo that his Peak shoes hadn’t been delivered on time, and he usually needs a few games to work his sneakers to match condition. Peak also confirmed Wiggins’ statement, adding that they were well aware of Wiggins’ situation, although it added that “athletes who don’t wear the brand will be dealt with accordingly”, leaving doubts as to where the relationship will go from here.
Peak is one of several local Chinese sportswear brands who use NBA endorsements to compete with foreign brands. When the brightest superstars are usually snapped by the likes of Nike, Shawn Liu, Anta’s director of basketball sports marketing, told ESPN that Chinese sponsors are typically more attractive to less famous players because the massive exposure in China would help raise their profile.
This marketing technique benefits not only the players but the companies themselves.
Vincenzo La Torre, a fashion editor for the South China Morning Post, explained to Otis Magazine that it’s the key to the hearts of their target consumer: “The ultimate goal is to gain legitimacy within China by creating a more global image and elevating the brand.” China, with its over 300 million basketball fans, according to the New York Times, offers a market with immense opportunity for sportswear brands – one that until recently has largely been dominated by foreign brands.
As political tensions between China and the United States rise, increased feelings of nationalism have allowed domestic brands to move to the top of the market. This was shown most clearly in March 2021 when Nike and Adidas (number one and number two in China’s sportswear and athleisure market, with 26% and 17%, respectively, according to Euromonitor International) spoke out against alleged use of forced labour in the cotton industry of Xinjiang.
As Chinese consumers vented their anger by refusing to buy products from the American shoemakers. local brands including Anta and Li Ning were able to tap into the outrage by publishing statements in loud support of using cotton from Xinjiang.
According to Bloomberg, by the end of January this year, the two Chinese brands accounted for 28% of total sneaker sales in China, 12% higher than before the cotton controversy, while foreign brands saw a decline of 24%.
The missteps of foreign brands were heightened by the Beijing Olympics. Although Nike regained its position in November of 2021 as number one in sneaker sales in China, it quickly fell as the Winter Olympiad in February set off Chinese consumers’ nationalism once again.
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