Li Ning Makes Stateside Debut

NEW YORK — Li Ning is taking on the U.S., and execs are betting on basketball as a way into the competitive American market.

On Feb. 15, the China-based athletic company opened the doors to its first American showroom and retail store in Portland, Ore. And while sneaker fans and basketball enthusiasts lined up to see popular NBA guard Baron Davis, who has teamed with the brand to launch his first signature basketball shoe, the BD Doom, Li Ning USA GM Jay Li said this is just the beginning.

“The American market is the largest sporting goods market in the world, in terms of capacity, but it’s also the most fiercely competitive,” Li said. “If you’re not in the U.S., you’re not serious about yourself as a global brand.”

Li, who moved to Portland in 2007 to open the company’s main footwear R&D center, said the store — the only brand-owned showroom outside of China, with the exception of two badminton-focused shops in Hong Kong and Singapore — was the next logical step.

“We wanted a showcase showroom so that American consumers and enthusiasts can come and experience the product,” said Li. “It will be a platform for us to get feedback from the consumers, as well as people in the industry.”

In addition to the Baron Davis basketball shoes and apparel, the Portland showroom will sell Li Ning’s collection of footwear, apparel and hardgoods for badminton and table tennis, which Li said both taps into the Asian-American followings for those sports and plays to the brand’s strengths. “[Those sports] are authentic plays for us. We’re not deviating from our heritage,” he said.

Li Ning also will begin wholesaling in August, when the BD Doom collection rolls out nationwide in Champs doors on the West Coast. “We want to use this as a launching pad and learn how to do business with companies such as Foot Locker and The Sports Authority,” Li said. “We’ve had success in China, but the way of doing business is very different over here. We can’t just replicate the model.”

Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, said Li Ning will be facing an uphill battle to establish itself in the American market.

“It’s going to be a long haul for them,” he said. “Just like we’ve seen with Under Armour, it’s not easy to establish yourself as a legitimate brand in the U.S.” Powell added that the basketball field in particular is challenging, with many companies vying for space and one brand dominating sales. “Jordan has sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” he said.

However, establishing the design office and the store in Portland could pay off for Li Ning’s larger business.

“The office in Portland gives the company access to some of the best shoe people in the world, and selling in the U.S. gives [Li Ning] more legitimacy in China,” Powell said.

In the meantime, Li said, the brand will be carefully monitoring results to further refine its U.S. market strategy. And, he added, he is realistic about the brand’s place in the American athletic world and the long road ahead. “Maybe right now we’re the 12th man on the 12-man roster,” he said. “We’re at the end of the bench, watching the rest of them on court. But [at least] we have a courtside seat now.”

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