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Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade debuts Li-Ning sneaker line in China

Dwyane Wade did something on Thursday that seemed inconceivable only a few years ago. He played a basketball game without Jordan Brand shoes on his feet.

A small thing to some basketball fans but an important thing to others, the brand of shoe a player wears on the court is a fashion statement, a status symbol and a measure of popularity. The best players wear the most popular brands, make the most commercials and, in turn, have the most lucrative endorsement contracts. Wade is among the NBA’s marketable elite, but, starting this season, he will no longer be helping Jordan Brand and its parent company, Nike, sell shoes to Americans.

Wade has taken his business abroad in the hopes of striking it rich … really, really rich.

The Heat’s future hall-of-fame guard parted ways with Jordan Brand on Sept. 30 and was introduced Wednesday in Beijing as the new face of basketball for Li-Ning, a sports equipment company that’s a household name in China but unknown to American consumers.

Wade’s news conference for the release of his new signature shoe was an over-the-top production. There was even a kung fu basketball dancer, which might never have existed if not for Wade’s new deal. The performer juggled a ball like a Harlem Globetrotter while maneuvering gracefully through kung fu positions.

The Chinese do over the top well. Remember the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games? The grand finale starred Wade’s new boss, Li Ning, the former Chinese gymnast turned businessman who won six medals at the 1984 Olympics. Li was the guy during Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies who flew through the air and lit the eternal Olympic fame.

The reason for Wade’s move is simple enough. Wade’s deal with Li-Ning could one day make him one of the richest athletes in the world. At least that’s the vision. Wade has reportedly been given equity in the company and, of course, a multimillion, multiyear deal that will pad his pockets well into retirement.

In short, he wants duplicate Michael Jordan’s worldwide shoe empire on a smaller — but still significant scale — in China.

“For any player to be able to do that would be phenomenal — half of that,” Wade said of Jordan, his boyhood idol. “Who knows if it can ever be duplicated, but that will be perfect if we could. So, I do have my own brand under the Li-Ning umbrella. I have my own Wade brand, which is cool.”

But the success of Wade’s new brand is no guarantee. Like any American businessman venturing into China, Wade is taking a risk. Li-Ning is an enormous company, but its profit share in the basketball footwear market has diminished considerably in the past year. With shrinking shoe profits in the Chinese basketball market, Li-Ning is hoping Wade and his international popularity can resuscitate its image.

“I believe Li-Ning is trying to buy legitimacy with this contract,” said Matt Powell of SportsOneSource, an independent analyst of the sneaker industry. “It’s all about selling shoes in China, not in the U.S..”

In the United States, Li-Ning has no image and it’s investing in Wade to possibly give it one. Other players have worn Li-Nings — Shaquille O’Neal, Baron Davis and former Heat player Damon Jones among them — but never has a player of Wade’s popularity in the prime of his career played NBA games in the shoes.

“I don’t look at it as a risk at all,” Wade said. “I weighed the pros and cons and there were two cons to me. One was I’ve never played in a sneaker outside the Nike umbrella and the second one was the cool factor in The States.”

Li-Nings aren’t cool in the United States, but they’re also not uncool. Wade was given creative control of his new shoes, something Jordan Brand was never willing to completely hand over, and he’s hoping his designs will help carve out a space in the U.S. market.

Wade’s first design is an ode to his life. The soles of the shoes feature initials of Wade’s loved ones, including his girlfriend, actress Gabrielle Union. There’s also a Bible verse written into the shoes, which is a nod to Wade’s mother. Wade explained Wednesday that his mother used the verse to stay strong during the tough times in her life.

The literal translation of Wade’s first signature shoe with Li-Ning is “The Ways of Dwyane Wade.”

“I have so much creative control, and it’s going to evolve as the season goes on,” Wade said. “What I’m wearing now will be different from what I wear when the season starts. It’s just cool to be able to have a lot of input.”

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