Grand Slam loser is still a smash hit back in China

Li Na last month became the first Asian to make it to the final of a 'big four' tournament. Her achievement coincides with a huge boom in sport sponsorship in China.

Li Na's brave performance in a Grand Slam final is expected spark a tennis boom in China and increase sponsorship in the sport.
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China's Li Na probably had more pressure on her shoulders than most women's tennis players as she stepped on to the court to confront Belgium's Kim Clijsters in the final of the Australian Open recently.

As the first Asian woman to make it to a Grand Slam final, she was hailed back in China as a pioneer. Even though she lost, Sun Jinfang, the head of the Chinese Tennis Association, said Li had secured her position as one of China's all-time sporting greats and predicted her success would prompt a major tennis boom in China.

"Boom" and "China" are magic words to any serious sports sponsor, and the Chinese sponsorship market is worth about US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn). The 2008 Olympics set the ball rolling, causing a surge in investment, not all of it wise or fruitful, but the sports sponsorship market is showing signs of strong growth both in revenues and sophistication.

Li Na's success highlighted that only 12 million Chinese play tennis regularly, a tiny number in a country of 1.3 billion. The growth potential is huge. The Chinese sporting goods market is worth $6bn and is expected to grow 14 per cent a year, according to the China Sporting Goods Federation.

The main focus for sports sponsorship in China is the American National Basketball Association (NBA) and soccer, which have basically been neck-and-neck in terms of attracting sponsorship in recent years. For about 15 years now, the biggest sponsors of football in China have been property companies, despite the fact the Chinese national team has had a less than edifying journey, failing to qualify for most tournaments and underwhelming badly when they do.

The disastrous form of the Chinese national football team means basketball has edged ahead in the national psyche, the sport largely personified by the massive form of Yao Ming, whose image is used to sell everything from Reebok shoes to Visa cards to McDonald's burgers.

Below these two are sports that are closely connected to national pride, such as gymnastics, badminton, diving and women's tennis. Domestic sponsors are also joining the market.

China's Li Ning, formed by the gold medal-winning Olympic gymnast, paved the way for domestic producers back in 2006 when the company signed NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.

In the English Premier League, the Chinese sportswear company Xtep sponsors Birmingham City's shirts.

Guirenniao (K-Bird) has sponsored many of the so-called "gentlemen's sports", which include golf, snooker and equestrian events. It also includes cricket, but that is still very much a minority sport.

Chinese sponsors are looking abroad, too. Yingli Solar recently became the first Chinese sponsor of the German Bundesliga club FC Bayern Munich.

The company, which was also a sponsor of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, will be a partner of the four-time European champions until June 2014.

Apart from popular figures such as Yao Ming and the hurdler Liu Qiang, sponsors tend to be keen to invest in competitions rather than individuals. There is a lot of interest in investing in golf, and the sport is growing strongly, but restrictions on the construction of new golf courses means the market is limited.

For a long time, foreign sponsors were reluctant to invest too much in the China market because of the inevitable piracy of their products.

But the lure of hundreds of millions of consumers has proven too strong, and in recent years, there have been some highly public crackdowns on pirate goods in China.

"I honestly believe if Li Na had won, she would made a very strong step towards being a world icon," said Mark Thomas, who runs the sports marketing group S2M in Shanghai.