O'Neal the real deal as Li-Ning goes global

China sportswear manufacturing giant Li-Ning has agreed a sponsorship deal with Miami Heat's All-star centre Shaquille O'Neal, it was announced yesterday in Beijing.

The terms of the 5-year contract were not released, but insiders said the value of the contract is said to be at least 10 million yuan (US$1.25 million), making it the most expensive deal in the company's history.

O'Neal, 34, is widely known as the most dominant centre in the National Basketball Association (NBA), winning four NBA championships with Los Angeles Lakers (2000 to 2002) and the Heat (2006).

Since moving to Miami in 2004, he has averaged 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds over the past two seasons.

Li Ning, who was nicknamed China's "prince of gymnastics," won 106 gold medals for China during his heyday in the 1980s.

"I chose Li-Ning brand because Li Ning himself was one of the greatest athletes of the 20 century and Li-Ning products are also one of the best in the world," O'Neal said yesterday at the press conference.

"We chose O'Neal based on his influence and expertise in basketball," Li Ning, Chairman of the Board of Li-Ning Company. "He is one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time and our co-operation will bring everything possible to China's basketball fans."

A crystal mould of the first 320 pairs of shoes, the start of Li-Ning's "Shaq" series, was presented to O'Neal. The shoes will be on sale starting next January.

On Li-Ning's basketball products, O'Neal's image, name, shirt number and autograph can been used and sold in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

Mark Fisher, CEO of NBA Asia, congratulated both parties on the partnership, saying it could even increase the love of basketball among China fans.

Founded by Chinese Olympic champion gymnast Li Ning, the company is arguably the most dynamic home brand in terms of partnerships with overseas players and sports organizations.

The contract makes O'Neal the second current NBA player to have signed a deal this year with Li-Ning, following Cleveland Cavaliers' guard Damon Jones in January. The company became an NBA marketing partner last year and has sponsored the Spanish national men's basketball team, which features Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, since 2002.

The O'Neal deal was also the biggest deal ever signed by a Chinese sportswear company and an NBA player.

The previous highest deal involved Portland Trailblazers legend Clyde Drexler, who signed with Athletics in 2005.

Zhang Zhiyong, CEO of Li-Ning Company said: "Basketball will be the major sponsor target of the company ahead of 2008 and there will be further deals after signing O'Neal."

Away from the basketball court, the company has joined men's professional tennis tour (ATP) as an official marketing partner earlier this year.

Source: China Daily

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