BY KEVIN MANAHAN
Li-Ning is already a phenomenal sportswear presence overseas, with almost $1 billion in annual revenue and more than 7,000 stores in China. The Beijing-based retailer has grown a great deal since it was founded 20 years ago, and now Li-Ning is ready to expand its presence and step onto the North American court. Its home city of choice? Portland, naturally.
Li-Ning USA unveiled its first American showroom this week with a grand opening ceremony at its Pearl District location. With sports apparel and equipment – everything from badminton racquets to tennis shirts – lining the shelves, the two-story showroom was officially open for business. Waiters catered to the packed house with champagne and hors d'oeuvres, a DJ kept the energy level high and I even stumbled upon Portland Mayor Sam Adams putting up a rather good fight in a game of ping-pong. Needless to say, it was an extravagant party, and celebration was certainly in order.
The company was founded by – and named after – Olympic gymnast Li-Ning, who won three gold medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Since its launch in 1990, the company has become one of China’s leading sportswear brands, moving beyond its local retail success to sponsor NBA athletes including Shaquille O’Neal and Baron Davis. Li-Ning’s business relationship with Davis eventually evolved to the development of his own basketball shoe brand, following in the footsteps of some of his NBA peers. The showroom’s grand opening this week served as the kickoff of the shoe – dubbed the BD Doom – and Davis himself was in attendance to oversee its launch. “Right now I’m pretty overwhelmed,” Davis said. “I just thank Li-Ning for having the wherewithal and the guts to come to the United States and know that there is room for more [brands], there is room for improvement.”
Also on board for the shoe’s release is Champs Sports, the Foot Locker brand’s second-largest component retailer. It was announced during the evening’s ribbon-cutting ceremony that Champs is teaming up with Li-Ning to distribute Davis' shoe, along with selected Li-Ning apparel and footwear, to over 50 malls on the West Coast by this August – just in time for the back-to-school shopping season.
It’s all good news for Portland, and it’s bound to get better as the 23-employee showroom finds its place among Portlanders. But why the Rose City? General manager Jay Li narrowed it down to one fact: This town knows footwear. “Portland, as you know, is the epicenter of athletic footwear,” Li said. “It is a great testing route for us to introduce the brand and ease into our international presence with the requisite resources.”
And as a little brand called Nike proved, humble Portland roots can go a long way, and Adams was optimistic over that prospect. “Thank you for your trust in Portland,” Adams told the company. “We’re just thrilled that you have chosen your foothold in North America to begin here, and from your base in Portland, we want you to take over North America.”