Chinese stars are now precious commodities
383 days to go
Youngsters who hold Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as role models might now begin to look elsewhere for fame and fortune as a research paper released this week illustrates the potential and realised earnings of mainland sports stars.
Liu Xiang's (pictured) victory in the 110 metres hurdles at Athens 2004 is rated as the most valuable among the mainland's total of 112 Olympic gold medals, according to the paper compiled by the Guangzhou-based China Institute for Brand Research.
Although the 461 million yuan number it crunched out - based on the media exposure generated, appearance fees collected and related advertising expenditure by sponsors over the past three years - has raised many eyebrows, those in the industry will say it's not far off the mark.
In the latest endorsement deal for the poster boy of China's elite Olympians, computer giant and Olympic partner Lenovo stumped up more than eight million yuan just for the use of Liu's image in its 2008 Games torch relay project and 'very limited TV and print ad commitments' over the next 12 months, revealed a sports marketing professional, who declined to be named.
'That money is simply not enough to secure Liu as a full-scale 'spokesperson',' the source said.
The National Athletics Administrative Centre, the sport's governing body, which doubles as Liu's business manager, restricts his speaking commitments, the highest rung in the red-hot hurdler's sponsorship portfolio, to five companies. The annual membership fee for that elite quintet, which includes such bigwigs as Visa, Nike and Coca-Cola, soars into the region of 20 million yuan. Sometimes it is more a matter of timing than money.
'Lenovo definitely has the financial power to afford a top-tier deal but it was simply told: 'sorry, we don't have a vacancy at the moment',' said the source.
Of course, the athletics association doesn't want Liu to be distracted by too many business commitments as he defends his crown in 13 months - but it has a huge vested interest in the athlete.
It keeps half of the sponsorship revenues and appearance fees of individual athletes, a normal policy which is used across the government-funded Chinese sports sector. Forbes China magazine estimated Liu's annual income for 2006 at 58 million yuan.
Not every star athlete is prepared to hand over such a large slice of the pie to the authorities without complaint. Tian Liang, whose 10m platform synchronised diving victory in Athens generated the second highest value at 397 million yuan, is one of the rebels standing up to defend his 'own money'.
Though never admitted publicly, Tian's expulsion from the national team in 2005 is understood to have resulted from his resistance to the sports authorities' claim to half, if not more, of the advertising and appearance fees he collected after the 2004 Games.
On the one hand, the loss of national team status cost him the chance to go one step higher in the chart - in fact Liu replaced Tian as the mainland spokesperson for marketing conglomerate Amway. On the other, Tian has managed to rake more into his own bank account.
Tian's ex-girlfriend and another highly visible Olympic diving champion, Guo Jingjing, however, caved in to the mounting pressure to pay up after displaying initial defiance.
The pair of gold medals she brought home from Athens - for the 3m springboard and synchronised springboard disciplines - might have represented 233 million yuan on paper, according to the research, but she is believed to have cashed in a very small portion of the amount herself.
While the fortunes being generated by the elite might seem mind-boggling and are almost in the same league as other Chinese celebrities such as actress Zhang Ziyi - she netted US$5 million (38 million yuan) alone in the Spielberg blockbuster Memoirs of a Geisha - many other well-known athletes find their worth in the market considerably lower.
The immensely popular maverick swimmer Luo Xuejuan, with her 100m breaststroke victory in Athens, ranked fourth in the research but has generated only 81 million yuan in commercial value, one third the amount commanded by the third-placed Guo.
The names below her, with the exception of tennis pair Li Ting and Sun Tiantian, who generated 65 million yuan, all have figures below the 50 million mark.
'Sport still hasn't developed the personality cult as much in China as in places like the US,' said Chris Renner, a Beijing-based managing director of Helios Partners, a consultancy providing services to a few IOC business partners.
'Liu Xiang is the template. The forthcoming Olympics will create five to six stars of that magnitude, names that Chinese fans just don't know at this stage. That would drive the sports marketing industry to greater heights.'
Of course, one mainland sports figure towers over all of the stars mentioned here, in earnings terms and well as physically. That is basketball superstar Yao Ming, but he has no Olympic medal to his credit and little prospect of earning one, such is the relatively poor state of the national basketball team, and he was not part of the research.
Yao topped the Forbes China celebrity list this year for the third time in a row, with an estimated annual income of 170 million yuan. His manager, Erick Zhang, once admitted a significant part of his job was to turn down unwanted sponsorship offers.
So, for any Chinese parents whose offspring have a talent for sport, its time to start planning their careers.
China's top-earning Olympians (yuan)
1 Liu Xiang, hurdler, 461 million
2 Tian Liang, diver, 397 million
3 Guo Jingjing, diver, 233 million
4 Luo Xuejuan, swimmer, 81 million
5 Sun Tiantian/Li Ting, tennis players, 65 million