Chinese Sportswear Company Opens U.S. Store

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China is looking to make its Li Ning sportswear company a global brand. Li Ning already has sponsorship deals with four NBA players, including Shaquille O'Neal. The company has opened its first U.S. retail store in Portland, Ore., which is in Nike territory.


A sportswear company from China has setup shop in Nike's backyard. Nike has long been America's king of sport shoes and other sports gear, and it got there in part by outsourcing to countries such as China. Now, some of what China has learned may pose a challenge to Nike's dominance, as we hear from Oregon Public Broadcasting's Kristian Foden-Vencil.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL: China's most successful athletic company, Li Ning, cut the ribbon on its first U.S. store this month in Portland. Outside, Tim Seyersing(ph) waited to see Baron Davis of the L.A. Clippers.

Mr. TIM SEYERSING: On this Web site I go onto, it's called Sneaker Files. Sneaker Files shows like what brand shoes they've got. I know Baron has it. Some other guy in the NBA is wearing these shoes. I think his name's Damon Jones. And they all wear this gear. And this gear is going to be sick, right?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

FODEN-VENCIL: You can hear the excitement in his voice, but generating that kind of buzz hasn't happened overnight. It started at the 1984 Olympics. That's when founder and company namesake Li Ning won six medals.

Mr. JAY LI (U.S. General Manager, Li Ning): Part of his aspiration while standing on the podium receiving his gold medals is he looked down his chest and he saw a foreign brand.

FODEN-VENCIL: Jay Li is the company's top dog here in the U.S. He says Li Ning's sportswear can now be found in 6,000 stores in China, but he says Nike and Adidas don't need to worry. Li Ning hasn't come to the U.S. to take over. It's here to learn.

But Li Ning's already well-versed in the importance of global marketing. Remember this music?

(Soundbite of music)

FODEN-VENCIL: It's from the 2008 Olympics in China. Now try and remember the scene: an athlete flying through the air on a wire to light the torch. You there? Well, that athlete was Li Ning. And you can bet your favorite pair of running shoes the Chinese audience wasn't thinking about the official sponsor, Adidas. It was thinking about Li Ning.

(Soundbite of cheering)

FODEN-VENCIL: So, cut to today in Nike's hometown, Portland, Oregon, a city awash in Nike shoe designers, running scientists and global marketers, many of whom Jay Li is happy to hire.

Mr. LI: Given the available talent pool that's here in Portland, it gives us much closer and easier access to those talents.

Mr. ERIC MILLER (Apparel Designer, Li Ning): I don't see anything wrong. I actually look at the opportunity as just that.

FODEN-VENCIL: Eric Miller is one of 26 apparel designers Li Ning's hired.

Mr. MILLER: I think the marketplace - whether it be shoes or cars or computers and electronics, anything - is pretty much an international market now.

FODEN-VENCIL: But before Li Ning can truly become an international company, there's a problem.

(Soundbite of ping-pong)

FODEN-VENCIL: Chinese sports like ping-pong don't exactly get Americans stripping off their shirts and painting their faces with passion. So in the new store, table tennis phenom Brian Loader is also a salesman.

Mr. BRIAN LOADER (Professional Table Tennis Player): If I'm going to try getting somebody into table tennis, I'm also going to want them to, you know, try to experiment with good equipment, too. You know, if you give somebody a bad paddle, a bad pair of shoes, bad anything in any sport, they're not going to enjoy it as much.

FODEN-VENCIL: Other Li Ning employees do the same for badminton, tai chi and kung fu. But is it going to work?

Mr. GARY PECK (The S-Group Inc.): I look at China and Li Ning specifically as having an incredible engine.

FODEN-VENCIL: Gary Peck runs a company that designs products for the likes of Nike and New Balance. He says Chinese companies may have a reputation for plastic throw away stuff and being bureaucratic, but...

Mr. PECK: Things do evolve and things do change. And if they're prepared to do that, then I think they're going to be very successful.

FODEN-VENCIL: For its part, Nike says it doesn't take any competitor lightly. But over the last few years, Li Ning's averaged an annual growth rate of 37 percent, stats that are likely to keep Nike up on its well-conditioned toes for a while.

For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil, in Portland.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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