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    China embraces male athletes. What happens when it gets Messi?

    Overtaking musicians and actors, Western sporting legends have gone from the playing field to luxury’s new it boys in China. But Messi’s recent misstep is a lesson in navigating the field.
    Overtaking musicians and actors, Western sporting legends have evolved from the playing field to luxury’s new it boys across China. But Messi’s recent misstep is a lesson in navigating the mainland. Photo: Louis Vuitton

    From David Beckham and LeBron James to Jack Grealish and Lewis Hamilton, sport’s golden boys are strengthening their relationships with fashion heavyweights, including Louis Vuitton, Thom Browne, and Gucci.

    Luxury brands regularly scope for new ambassadors on the NBA court or F1 track. But last year saw male athletes from all fields hog the style spotlight. According to Launchmetrics, the top-performing male athletes of 2023 generated more earned media value than some of the globe’s biggest male musicians and actors, including Zac Efron and K-pop group BTS.

    “Male fans have high emotional attachments to athletes, compared to their affinity to actors and musicians,” sports marketing consultant, Nicole Emily Sime, tells Jing Daily.

    Now, they’re reaping the benefits in China, too. Below, Jing Daily examines the opportunities for Western stars in the mainland, and how to approach the country’s devotees with cautious consideration: see, Messi’s recent Hong Kong misstep.

    Western darlings#

    Homegrown athletes may have profited heavily from China’s fervent fanbases, but Western sports stars remain the real crowd-pullers. Luxury brands are listening.

    Take a valorized global legend like Beckham, for example. The former footballer boasts a far-reaching audience across the mainland, bolstered by the country’s reported 250 million Manchester United fans. In May last year, Beckham announced his role as brand ambassador for The Londoner Macau and officiated the high-end hotelier’s grand opening, a move that helped reaffirm his position as the face of Western football in China.

    “[Western athletes] serve almost like cultural ambassadors in a way, providing a window into Western sports, fashion, and celebrity culture,” China marketing consultant Amber Wu tells Jing Daily. Beckham’s reign across China is bolstered by his investment in local fan culture; on Weibo, the icon boasts 9.7 million followers and he has fronted the likes of preppy label Kent & Curwen, owned by Li & Fung's menswear company Trinity Limited.

    David Beckham officiating the opening of The Londoner Macau. Photo: The Londoner Macau
    David Beckham officiating the opening of The Londoner Macau. Photo: The Londoner Macau

    Another case in point is NBA basketball player James Harden who, in August last year, sold 10,000 bottles of his own wine company in 10 seconds via Douyin livestream, attracting more than 15 million viewers. Basketball has demonstrated immense popularity in mainland China, with over 300 million residents now participating in the sport, according to the NBA.

    Harden’s success can’t be easily replicated, says Anaïs Bournonville, co-founder of French-Chinese creative marketing agency Reverse Group, adding that athletes shouldn’t rest on their laurels as an easy marketing route.

    “The case of James Harden was great because it showed that the person behind the brand must interact with its Chinese audience to drive sales,” Bournonville says. “The main challenge for [brands] is to explore how a Western athlete, famous in the West, can benefit from positive visibility in China. Someone famous in the West is not necessarily famous in China.”

    More than a pretty face#

    Whereas other types of celebrities often have rocky reputations, athletes are mostly regarded as disciplined, talented, and physically fit, all qualities that luxury brands are eager to associate themselves with when it comes to courting China’s consumers.

    From a brand perspective, Kristian Anderson, Consulting Creative Director at ISPO, believes that the appeal of athletes, particularly across the mainland, runs deeper than face value, a cardinal detail in establishing authentic partnerships.

    “Luxury brands need more than beautiful faces; they need someone with a story and someone who is successful in other fields to validate their products,” Anderson says.

    Wu underscores this, pointing to China’s collective emphasis on health and fitness as an advantage. “Athletes are physical embodiments of health, fitness, and wellness,” she says. “The association with sports and athletes aligns a brand with themes of health and dedication, both qualities that resonate well with many luxury brands.”

    NBA player James Harden exceeded expectations when he sold 10,000 bottles of his wine in under 10 seconds via Douyin livestream. Photo: Douyin
    NBA player James Harden exceeded expectations when he sold 10,000 bottles of his wine in under 10 seconds via Douyin livestream. Photo: Douyin

    The Messi effect#

    Football players have also experienced heightened celebrity status across China, fueled by the sport's widespread appeal. FIFA World Cup champion Lionel Messi became a social media sensation last year when a clip of a fan running onto the pitch to hug the player went viral. The athlete, who was visiting the mainland for a friendly match against Australia, inspired such “Messi Mania” that he and his teammates were unable to leave their Beijing hotel due to fans.

    The far-reaching popularity of a player like Messi is a major draw for luxury brands. With over 32 percent of its sales coming from Asia, Louis Vuitton’s appointment of the athlete as brand ambassador last April made noise across China, further amplifying the maison’s appeal.

    Inter Miami FC player Lionel Messi left fans outraged after sitting out of local Hong Kong match. Photo: CNBC
    Inter Miami FC player Lionel Messi left fans outraged after sitting out of local Hong Kong match. Photo: CNBC

    Recent outrage, however, has shown that not even wonder boys like Messi and Beckham are immune to controversy.

    The Argentine-born player was knocked by fans and netizens last week when he sat out a friendly between Inter Miami FC and a local team in Hong Kong, a game that fans had reportedly paid thousands of HK dollars to watch, many to see the athlete in action.

    "Never before has a football game scored such a glaring own goal," says John Dawson, former Bloomberg TV anchor, Hong Kong media veteran and managing director of reputation management consultancy Acara Strategy. "For the Chinese people and culture, there is nothing worse than losing face, the feeling of being disrespected."

    The story subsequently drew colossal global attention, with The Financial Times branding what should have been a seminal moment for Hong Kong as a “PR nightmare.” The Chinese government has since canceled two Argentinian team matches in the country following the Messi backlash, while Tatler Asia, the luxury lifestyle publication that organized the Hong Kong friendly, announced on Friday that it would be partially refunding ticket holders after government intervention and widespread criticism.

    "It will take a lot to repair this with HK and China. It's not impossible but Beckham and Messi will need to demonstrate an apology with action," Dawson says, adding that both idols should have invested more time into reconciling their relationship with locals following the fallout: "in this instance, action speaks a lot louder than words."

    Despite issuing an apology to his 8.1 million Weibo followers, the Argentine-footballer's blunder is a lesson in how Western icons, and the brands supporting them, should approach China’s steadfast fanatic fandom. After all, when high expectations fall flat, or fans perceive disrespect, things are bound to get a little, or a lot, Messi.

    Key Takeaways#

    • Male athletes are surpassing musicians and actors, including Zac Efron and K-pop group BTS, in terms of earned media value, indicating a growing emotional attachment of fashion enthusiasts to athletes.
    • Western sports stars are strategically tapping into the vast Chinese market to leverage their popularity and make a lasting impact on the Chinese audience.
    • Athletes, seen as disciplined, talented, and physically fit, serve as ideal ambassadors for luxury brands in China, as they resonate well with Chinese consumers' emphasis on fitness and wellness.
    • Recent scandals like Messi and Beckham's highlight the importance of navigating China's fan bases with sensitivity. Brands need to be strategic with their choices in athlete endorsements to avoid potential pitfalls.
    • For luxury brands wanting to ride the trend wave, they should select their athlete carefully, opting for a persona which resonates well with the brand's core ethos and values.
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