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Li Na: The Global Marketing Of A Chinese Sports Superstar

After her historic French Open victory, Li Na instantly became the apple of advertisers eyes to the tune of $42 million. Though she was knocked out of the first round of the U.S. Open, a whole star system is counting on her earning power to keep growing.

Li Na, Chinese Tennis Star (#96)
Li Na, Chinese Tennis Star (#96)
Liu Xiang, Wang Jielu and Zhang Ben

Two years ago, when Max Eisenbud of the IMG sports star management group signed up the then 27-year-old Chinese tennis player Li Na, all agreed her age was a problem in a sport famous for its short professional life spans. But Eisenbud never had any doubt about Li Na, and his bet has proved to be right many times over.

Two months after becoming the first Asian tennis player to have won a Grand Slam singles title, at the French Open 2011, Li Na has signed at least seven endorsement contracts for commercial brands, totaling an estimated value $42 million, becoming the world's No. 2 female athlete as ranked by annual revenue, right behind Maria Sharapova. Fans hoping for a second grand slam at this month's U.S Open in New York were disappointed, as Li was stunned by Simona Halep in the first round in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5.

Still, back in China, there is little taming the "Li Na Gust," which has blown open a door for major promotion of tennis for the first time to the Chinese market of 1.3 billion people. Nike, Rolex, Haagen Dazs and SpiderTech have signed on, while Eisenbud said last week that two other top global brands and one Chinese company were also set to ink deals soon.

IMG provides the overall marketing service globally for Li, guaranteeing a fixed income beyond tournament prize money, and sharing revenue with her from individual advertisements and sponsorships. IMG composes only one part of the chain of Li Na's professional support, along with her coaching staff and technical support team. But IMG also provides additional services, like providing her with the best medical professionals and setting her travel schedule.

"What a company like IMG provides for an athlete is a systemic solution," explains Zhang Qing, the Director of Key-Sports Research Institute. "Not only does it help Li Na raise her competitive level, but aims to maximize the tangible and intangible value throughout her entire professional career."

Zhang says "scarcity" is the key for making the most of a marketable sports star like Li. "Scarcity makes it a seller's market. When Li appears in too many different ads, one after another, it can create a vague and confusing memory for consumers."

The only comparable cases of Chinese athletes and sponsorships are the recently retired basketball player Yao Ming, and the Olympic gold 110 meter hurdler Liu Xiang. In their heyday, Yao never had more than a dozen sponsors, whereas Liu Xiang was attacked for being "excessively commercially exploited" when he accepted more than twelve contracts at once.

700 emails

Li is not the first women's tennis star Max Eisenbud has helped turn into a gold mine. The first was Maria Sharapova, after she won the 2004 Wimbledon women's singles title.

"After Maria was crowned, I received more than 700 emails within two weeks asking to sign her", Eisenbud recalled.

The potential impact that Li brings is no less. "I had to take phone calls day and night. There were simply too many people waving their check books in front of me. But my main task is how to choose the most appropriate few for Li Na among so many."

One anecdote that was widely circulated is that among the potential brands that wanted Li as a sponsor was a cockroach killing product. With his experience, Eisenbud politely declined.

However, to have the world's two most expensive women tennis players as clients can come with its callenges. For instance, how to maintain Sharapova's exalted status as the queen of tennis, or who to root for when they play each other, as they did in the semi-finals of the French Open.

There was also Thomas Hogstedt, the Swedish coach who helped lead Li Na into the world's top ten. He left Li to coach Sharapova last November, rising the ire of Chinese media and fans.

Li's elimination from the US Open begs certain questions: Was she just a flash in the pan? Will Li's new sponsors renew their large investment in her? Still, one thing is certain, regardless of Li's path in the coming two to three years time, for IMG and Eisenbud, Li Na is already a very successful bet, and the return on the investment is still growing.

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