As families across China gather for the start of the New Year holiday this weekend, millions of Tvs will be tuned in to the sports channel Saturday afternoon—to watch Li Na face Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open, trying to become her country’s first Grand Slam champion.
Li has already made history; her comeback win over world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne Thursday made her the first Chinese tennis player to reach a Grand Slam final. Interviewed post-match, Li said her motivation in the final set was “prize money,” and local news stories have focused heavily on the purse—$2.2 million AUD ($2.175 USD, or more than 14 million RMB) if she wins, and half that if she loses.
Although China’s 51-gold medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics showed that it has its share of world-class athletes, few of these athletes have the chance to compete for millions. Yao Ming is among the NBA’s 10 best-paid players, but Liu Xiang can only compete for a few dozen thousand dollars at the IAAF World Championships.
But there’s a lot more than $2 million USD at stake here. If Li Na can win Saturday, and follow that up with a strong season, she should be able to rack up the endorsements from now through the 2012 Olympics in London.
Li’s big moment coincides with a void at the top of the Chinese sports world, a lack of active elites. Yao Ming played limited minutes in five games, before injuring himself yet again and announcing he would sit out the 2010-11 season (though that didn’t stop Chinese fans from voting him into the starting lineup at the All-Star game). Yi Jianlian is averaging about 6 points and 3 rebounds for the Washington Wizards, who have not won a road game all season. Liu Xiang was back in form en route to his Asian Games gold in November, but has yet to prove he has recovered his ability to beat the world’s best. And although diver Guo Jingjing will stay in the limelight, a retired athlete makes a much less compelling pitchwoman.
IMG has handled Li’s commercial activities since 2009, about a year after she struck out on her own when China’s tennis federation extended to top players the freedom to set their own training schedules, handle their own business deals, and keep more of their winnings. Li has been an outspoken advocate of expanding this policy to other sports, saying last year, “It is very important for us to have the right to choose. I really mean it.”
Related: All-China Australian Open final? Making history and a case for reform
Li Na to kick out snoring husband in bid to break China’s duck
Li Na and husband/coach image: PClady.com
Tags: IMG, Li Na, sports marketing, tennis