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With a basketball in her hand and her foot supported by fellow countrymen, China’s stunning basketball star Sui Feifei leaps into the spotlight of Adidas’ ads for the Beijing Olympic Games. The campaign is the brand’s largest ever created for a single market.

As the countdown continues for the Olympics, now only eight months away, activewear brands around the globe are already warming up for what observers say will be the biggest marketing platform to date—not to mention the most profitable in the event’s history.

Already, the Games are expected to turn a profit of between $20 million and $30 million, according to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. It stated that revenues from broadcasting rights, sponsors’ merchandise and ticket sales will exceed the anticipated costs of $2.4 billion to host the Games.

Meanwhile, mega ad campaigns, colossal retail rollouts and product launches are breaking record speeds in the race to target the young demographic worldwide and to propel activewear behemoths’ businesses in China, which is expected to be the largest sporting goods market anywhere by 2010.

Nike and Adidas have been getting ready for the Games by opening stores across the land. Nike unveiled a sprawling, 13,000-square-foot flagship in Beijing last August. The company already has around 3,000 doors in more than 300 Chinese cities and is sponsoring athletes from 22 of 28 international federations.

Adidas, the official sportswear sponsor of the Games, will open its biggest flagship in the world in Beijing in time for the opening ceremony in August. The store will exceed the surface of its 19,000-square-foot Champs-Elysées flagship in Paris. The company, whose sales in China doubled in the last 18 months, said China will be its second-largest market after the U.S., with more than 1 billion euros, or $1.46 billion at current exchange, in revenue by 2010. Today, Adidas and its Reebok brand boast around 4,000 stores in China, a figure the group expects to increase to 7,000 by the end of the decade.

“Adidas believes that Olympic success means more than winning medals, and that the Olympic spirit is not just for the athletes,” says Wolfgang Bentheimer, managing director of Adidas Greater China. “The passion that all Chinese are feeling about the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will make China a true sports nation, and Adidas will play an active role in this development.”

Part of its involvement includes outfitting athletes competing in 27 of 28 Olympic sports.Puma also is pouncing on the hype generated by the Beijing Olympics. The Puma Runway collection for next summer was inspired by the spirit of the Games, according to its executives. The brand chose 19-year-old Norwegian track star Kristine Engeset for the ads.

“Puma Runway is the perfect combination of a sporty and cool style,” says Engeset. “When I’m running, I want to be relaxed and train in good clothes. So, when I’m standing at the starting line, I’m feeling fresh and good, and it helps me to have confidence and focus on my running.”

The sportswear line for women includes styles for runners both on and off the track, plus accessories and running shoes. Also in the collection is the company’s new sprint spike running/track shoe that will be worn by teams Puma sponsors, including Morocco, Sweden and Jamaica. The collection is expected to hit stores this month and will be priced from $25 to $125.

According to Antonio Bertone, Puma’s chief marketing officer, 2008 “is a big year on the sports calendar for Puma with the European championships, Olympics and our new entry into sailing with the Volvo Ocean Race. The Olympics, specifically, will give us increased brand visibility with our sponsorship of 16 national track and field teams, and also provides the opportunity to showcase new product in our running category across a variety of marketing platforms.”

Meanwhile, smaller sporting goods brands are taking their business to the starting block. Japan’s Asics said it will expand its global apparel business in time for the Games, while the U.S.’ New Balance hopes to become the number-one running wear brand in China, its executives say. New Balance expects that the country will become its second-largest market after the U.S. by 2012, when its overall sales should reach $3 billion, or double what they are today. The company will unveil its new store concept next year and hopes to boast 1,000 stores in China by 2012.

“We have achieved strong brand growth in China in recent years, which will serve as a solid foundation on which to expand and increase our market share,” says Robert DeMartini, chief executive officer of New Balance, who adds that the Games provide a prime opportunity to showcase the label for consumers and distributors alike. New Balance also says it is looking to expand its consumer base by reaching clients ages 16 to 29.

“Beijing is crucial. It is like the peak of the mountain. It has the most visible media coverage for an activewear brand,” says Giuseppe Musciacchio, global marketing director for Arena, the leading Italian swimwear label and Speedo rival. He adds that the Olympic Games represent a significant share of sportswear brands’ marketing budgets. But he says it’s worth it.

“Return on investment comes through ‘winning’ each time an athlete has that podium shot—it is the most effective advertisement,” he explains.

Arena is in the sports spotlight, thanks to Laure Manaudou, the stunning French world championship swimmer whom the brand sponsors. She’s said to be a gold-medal contender in the Olympics.

Meanwhile, local activewear behemoths Anta and Li Ning are jockeying for position with the activewear giants. While they aren’t yet household names outside of China, Li Ning’s stock price has soared 300 percent during the past year. The company, which sponsors basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, was founded by former Los Angeles Olympic gold medal–winning gymnast Li Ning. It touts some 5,000 stores, in-store shops and outlets across Mainland China. Plans for the company include adding an additional 600 shops in time for the Games.

Game Faces
They may still be limbering up for the world’s biggest sporting event, but plenty of pretty young European Olympians are already competing in the style stakes. Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, a constellation of sporting stars is getting attention from fans and activewear brands.

Name: Kristine Engeset
Age: 19
Country: Norway
Sport: Track, 3,000 meter steeplechase
Sponsor: Puma
“On or off the track, I want to have the perfect combination of sporty and cool,” says Engeset, the face of Puma’s new Puma Runway collection, a lifestyle line for runners. Engeset, who runs, on average, 120 kilometers, or about 75 miles, a week, has had Olympic dreams since she was 13. “It’s always been a goal, but the most important thing is to have a good season,” demurs Engeset, who certainly has a philosophical approach to her training: “I’m studying religion. It’s an interesting subject and the perfect combination with my running.”

Name: Alessia Filippi
Age: 20
Country: Italy
Sport: Swimming, 400 meter medley
Sponsor: Arena
Water nymph Alessia Filippi started swimming at only three years old. Today she’s earned a European championship title and holds Italy’s record time for the 400 meter medley and the 200 meter backstroke. While Filippi participated in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, she says maturity has enhanced her performance. “I have grown up, and now I face the Olympic Games in a different way. I strongly hope to achieve something important,” says Filippi, who wants to pursue a post-competition career in politics.

Name: Jessica Ennis
Age: 21
Country: U.K.
Sport: Track and field, heptathlon
Sponsor: Adidas
Little was known of England’s Jessica Ennis before she won the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, last summer. The victory marked the arrival of the new star on the British team, where she now ranks as Britain’s number-one heptathlete and seventh worldwide. Already qualified for the Beijing Games, Ennis continues to score new personal bests.

This article was originally published on January 10th, 2008 in WWDFAST, a supplementary publication of WWD available to subscribers.

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