Business / Talking Business

Sneaker rebels should respect the rules of the game

By Gao Jin'an (China Daily) Updated: 2016-11-18 07:30

Sneaker rebels should respect the rules of the game

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. [Photo provided to China Daily]

On the 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.

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