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What happens when Asia’s sporting legends retire?

Lin Dan of China speaks to Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia during the presentation ceremony on day six of the Badminton Malaysia Open at Axiata Arena on April 07, 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

  • Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, China’s Li Na and Kim Yuna of South Korea have been three of the biggest sporting stars in Asia this century
  • The sports they left behind have to adapt to build on the legacy that is left in terms of popularity and finances.
  • Asian sponsors and associations are keen to move on from their departures as quickly as possible 

“When there is any down-tick in interest, i.e. a star leaves a sport, first and foremost it’s critical that a sport looks at how they keep the fans interested,” Garrett Shea, executive director of Sports, Sponsorships and Events Consulting, tells SportBusiness. “Sponsors will come when a sport has a strong brand or strong affinity with fans. Most sports are developing their young talent so when a star leaves a sport there are many ready to replace.

Sometimes it only takes one player to change a game. And in a region like Asia, that player could mean a sport engaging with tens of millions more fans – something both sponsors and sports are keen to take advantage of. Activations with a single athlete in Asia can sometimes be converted into years of marketing for an organisation, such is the recognition these partnerships can achieve.

John Duerden examines three retired sports stars from China, South Korea and Malaysia and the impact they have had in their respective countries.

The Chinese game changer

Replacing the legends is easier said than done though that has not stopped sponsors, world governing bodies and the Chinese Tennis Association all searching for the next Li Na in China.

It’s easy to see why. In 2011, 116 million Chinese people watched Li become the first Asian to win a grand slam as she took the French Open. By the time injury forced her retirement in 2014, the number of players in the world’s most populous country had grown from two million to 20 million. Li was a catalyst for the explosion as well as a bridge connecting leading brands at home and overseas to the burgeoning Chinese middle-class.

According to a report released by the International Tennis Federation in October, the number of participants in China has held reasonably solid at around 19.5 million. Viewing figures have fallen, however, since she hung up her racket. In 2017, the highest-viewed tennis match on Chinese television was watched by around 7 million people.

Li’s effect has encouraged brands to bet on a few of those extra 18 million people she inspired to follow in her footsteps. In July 2018, the sportswear company Asics signed with China’s then top-ranked female tennis player Zhang Shuai and in January Dunlop signed with Wang Qiang, China’s current female number one.

“Chinese tennis has changed a lot since she won the French Open. Li is our role model and we all want to be like her. We all think that if she can do it, maybe we can do it,” Wang said.

Li Na of China attends activity on Day 5 of 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open at Optics Valley International Tennis Center on September 26, 2019 in Wuhan, China. (Photo by Tao Zhang/Getty Images)

“Star athletes are great for the sport because they get people’s attention, they inspire fans and supporters to get interested in the sport,” said Shea. “More attention and more fan engagement make the sport more relevant and ultimately attract brands to want to spend money.”

As well as individual sponsorships, international brands are keen to engage with the game in the China. In October alone, sports brand Fila agreed a three-year deal with the China Tennis Open and global milk products conglomerate Ausnutria Dairy signed a partnership deal with the China Tennis Association, agreeing to donate $14.1m to Chinese public health projects.

The Women’s Tennis Association is also pushing hard, and helped by a Beijing office will hold nine tournaments in the country, one more than in the United States. The WTA finals came to the southern city of Shenzhen in October for the most lucrative tennis event ever with a total prize money of $14m, considerably higher than the $8m on offer at the ATP event in London.

Yet even if there is no new Li, many brands do not seem to mind as they still sponsor the original, and she is earning between $15m and $20m a year. “I think a lot of her sponsors were stressed out and scared when she retired – ‘How is this going to work?’” said Max Eisenbud, Li’s agent. “But I think now they secretly like it, because now they can have more time with her, and now she’s present in China.”

The Korean revolutionary

It is a similar story for Kim Yuna in South Korea. Earlier this year, the figure skater, who won gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics was named as the third-most marketable female celebrity in the country despite retiring in 2014.

Ice skating is nowhere near as popular in the country now as it was when ‘Queen Yuna’ ruled the rinks but Kim revolutionised the sponsorship industry in Korean sports.

Traditionally, sport sponsorship was seen as the preserve of companies such as Nike and adidas. Korean conglomerates owned football, baseball or volleyball clubs – partly through a sense of public welfare – but did not see sponsorship of individual athletes as something to get involved in. Kim changed all that.

South Korean prime minister Lee Nak-yon and 2010 Vancouver Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-Na hold the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics torch at Incheon International Airport on November 1, 2017 in Incheon, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

KB Kookmin Financial Group, which includes one of the nation’s biggest banks, was trying to change its somewhat staid and dull image and latched onto Kim early, in 2006 when she was still at high school,and never let go.

“The company was looking to find a universal value to get the nation behind it,” said Kim Hyun-ki, an independent Seoul-based sports marketing consultant. “The patriotism and pride that was poured onto Kim’s successes reflected well on the bank, but her youth and vitality also helped bring a fresh image.”

With Kim – who has advertised everything from air conditioning to cosmetics to coffee – retiring, KB moved onto support a new generation of skaters inspired by Kim and then moved on to female golfing stars, of which Korea has many. In 2015, it offered higher interest rates on special savings accounts if golfer Park Inbee won a grand slam. She did just that and $195m was invested in the account in six months.

These days KB faces competition as other companies have moved into the individual sponsorship business such as KEB Hana Bank, financial services group Mirae Asset and conglomerate Hanwha Group.

“In ice skating and golf, there are a lot of young talents coming through and they are very ambitious and work very hard,” said Kim. “They are also cheap. It costs little for companies to sign them on, but they can make lots of money if they become successful. If a company can find the next Kim Yuna then it doesn’t need to do any other marketing for the next 10 years.”

The Malaysian icon

Badminton in Malaysia is in a slightly different position. The country is a power in the sport, winning three silver medals in Rio 2016, but there are worries of a decline heightened by the retirement of Lee Chong Wei. ‘LCW’ had already taken a break from the sport due to health reasons in September 2018 and in an emotional announcement, made it permanent in June 2019.

“Inevitably, heroes inspire people to play and to reach for the stars and Lee is probably the hero whom people look up to,” Michelle Chai, the former general secretary of the Badminton Association of Malaysia, now with the Olympic Council of Malaysia.

“However, Malaysia is lucky in the sense that we have a long tradition and history in badminton. We are hopeful we will keep on producing more champions who can continue to inspire the young generation.”

Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia competes during the men’s singles final match against Srikanth Kidambi of India during Badminton on day 11 of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Carrara Sports and Leisure Centre on April 15, 2018 on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Lee became world number one in 2006 and stayed there for almost seven years. His retirement from badminton in June 2019 not only meant that the country was losing its biggest sports star but meant that sport was losing its most bankable athlete.

BAM president Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria admitted in January that sponsors were discontent with the way the sport was going. Victor, a Taiwanese sporting goods manufacturer, signed a six-year deal in March 2015 worth $15m with telecommunications provider Celcom Axiata’s $8m deal expiring in August 2020.

“It’s true that we’re facing challenges (dealing with sponsors), but we expected it and will deal with it,” said Norza.

“For many years, Malaysian badminton was defined by several individuals which include Lee Chong Wei. We explained to the sponsors our plans to move forward. We want to build players for Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024. The national team need a new generation of players to replace the old ones and BAM are on track to deliver them.”

There are concerns that without Lee, the 2020 Olympics will not be a success.

“This (decline) is really happening and we must accept the fact that the entire squad are going through a transition process,” said BAM coaching director Wong Choong Hann. “We cannot just remain in this situation. How are we going to come back stronger?”

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