PORTLAND — CJ McCollum‘s rapid rise to stardom earned him a $106 million contract extension with the Portland Trail Blazers. The fifth-year guard also suddenly found himself among the most sought-after players by footwear brands this past summer, as his initial four-year sneaker deal with Nike was set to expire.
Financial details aside, McCollum was looking for a brand that would feature him and allow him to be involved in curating his own products going forward. Outside of creating his own custom colorways of Kyrie Irving‘s shoe on Nike’s iD website from time to time, developing his own product would be all new territory for the rising guard, who was named the league’s Most Improved Player in 2015.
“I didn’t know much about it at all, honestly,” McCollum said of sneaker deals when he was first drafted. “Watching from afar, and being a fan from afar, I didn’t necessarily understand the negotiating side of it and the contract structure of how players go from rookie deals to the next deal. As you go through the NBA, you get a decent understanding of it.”
He has now become one of the more savvy players around the league, partnering with a growing list of companies and also sharing his own personality and perspective on his social media accounts.
Across the globe, longtime Chinese athletic brand Li-Ning took notice and emerged as the most interested, most invested and most aggressive company — eventually signing McCollum to a lucrative five-year endorsement deal that will make him one of the top-earning players signed to a Chinese company. While Li-Ning might be unfamiliar to some players, McCollum had a unique vantage point among the league’s emerging stars.
For starters, his older brother Errick had been a star himself in the Chinese Basketball Association for two seasons, leading the league in scoring with 39.6- and 37.5-point averages to close the 2015 and 2017 CBA seasons. His 82-point outburst in 2015 still ranks as the all-time single-game scoring record in China. Having visited the country twice, the younger McCollum was not only familiar with the region, but also the brand, as Li-Ning has been the CBA’s official outfitter for the past five years.
“I was able to learn about it through him and his experience of seeing the previous years of the brand,” said McCollum. “From 2013 to 2017 now, I’ve seen how the brand has evolved and how the technology has continued to get better.”
From the onset, there was a curiosity and interest from both sides. McCollum was looking to expand on his own brand throughout the region, while Li-Ning was looking to refresh its roster with younger, more explosive players.
“I was looking for a unique opportunity to go where I was wanted,” said McCollum. “Similar to college with different universities, there needs to be a mutual admiration. You want to go somewhere where you’re wanted and where you can be utilized and have input in the brand. I felt like I was going to have those things and influence into my shoes. With the market four or five times the United States, it could be crucial in my development as a player, person and brand.”
Fans in China are frantic about the sport, and they still draw their influence from American stars, creating a dynamic where U.S.-born players like Klay Thompson, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Shane Battier could all enjoy huge popularity in China with domestic brands.
After sponsoring the CBA via a five-year, $300 million partnership that expired this past spring, Li-Ning recently renewed with the local league for exactly half of the marketing commitment. The company’s new $150 million pact over the same number of years means the brand is shifting strategy and will have more resources to allocate toward signing NBA players.
“On the performance side, Li-Ning wants to find more young talent from the league,” said Fei Guo, Li-Ning’s Basketball Sports Marketing Director. “CJ is a guard, and we recognized that CJ has great leadership and the ability to dominate the game in the clutch.”
A summerlong recruitment
Originally founded in 1990 by former Chinese Olympic gymnastics icon Li Ning, the brand has made inroads into basketball for more than a decade. It was the first Asian company to sign an NBA player to an endorsement deal, inking contracts with Damon Jones and Shaquille O’Neal in the mid-2000s.
When Li Ning himself lit the flame of the Olympic torch during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games — one of the sporting world’s greatest guerrilla marketing moments, to the frustration of official sponsor Adidas — the brand soon took on a new global visibility and momentum that saw it gain favor with athletes around the world.
“We were at the Beijing Olympics and Mr. Li Ning was the one that ended up flying over the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and lighting the torch,” Dwyane Wade said after joining the brand in 2012. “They kind of blew up in 2008 and that moment really made the name known.”
As McCollum was sorting through brand presentations and offers, he also did a healthy amount of his own research. He phoned up the former Miami Heat star and Finals MVP often over the summer, picking the brain of the 12-time All-Star about his experience with the brand, the performance of the sneakers and nuances about touring in China.
For Wade, who left Nike’s Jordan Brand in 2012 to sign with Li-Ning, the move was not only about a major offer that included an equity stake in the company, but also ample creative control.
Throughout their conversations, Wade wooed McCollum with his confidence in the product, along with anecdotes about the level of service and attention he receives, and how that compares to his experiences with Jordan Brand.
“I was just getting an understanding of his overall experience with it,” McCollum said. “He left at 29 when he went to Li-Ning. With me as a 26-year-old, our mindset and our approach to the situation is very similar.”
McCollum also got advice from Blazers teammate Evan Turner, who has a long-term deal with Li-Ning and happens to sit directly next to McCollum in the Blazers’ locker room.
“I just kept it real with him, what I liked about the brand and how I thought we could get better,” Turner said. “As his star was rising, I told him I thought it’d be advantageous for him to partner with an up-and-coming brand.”
Turner, who signed a multimillion dollar deal with Li-Ning as a rookie in 2010, was in China this summer for his own promotional tour with fans. Thanks to technology, he made sure to bring McCollum along from Portland as best he could. The two FaceTimed throughout Turner’s weeklong tour, giving McCollum a glimpse into the brand’s approach and audience in China.
“The love he was getting shown there, and the love that they have for basketball, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” McCollum said.
“If you have never been here, you might not really understand how amazing and how big basketball is,” said Wade after his first tour with the brand. “These fans in China love the sport, and they have more players playing than we have people living in the U.S.”
Building the McCollum brand
“At the beginning, everything is about the sneakers on his feet,” Guo said.
The early meetings between McCollum and the Li-Ning representatives involved discussions on footwear technologies, branding, colors, materials and a potential logo, but the two sides are taking their time before making any big rollouts.
To start the 2016-17 season, McCollum has been playing in the brand’s Power 4, Sonic 5 and YuShuai 11 models. There’s no signature shoe in stores just yet, as the two sides are focused on the more elementary starting points, like McCollum’s preference for red shoes with splatter-painted midsoles.
“We’re going through all of that now, trying to figure out the logos and how I want to incorporate it — whether it be initials or actual symbols,” McCollum said. “It’s a tough process, and it’s one that we don’t want to rush.”
In addition to the footwear and gear — which has been inundating McCollum’s house on a weekly basis since the contract became official — the two sides have also discussed a long-term vision of how he and the brand could best work together on more impactful events and programs.
“I’m looking to bring some of the things that I do in the States over to China,” McCollum said. “We’ve already discussed the CJ McCollum Dream Center, functionalities of it, and partnerships with literation programs to continue to educate underserved kids and youth in different areas.”
From the brand’s standpoint, those tours and programs can be expected to begin next summer and touch new regions in China, allowing McCollum to reach fans who otherwise might not have the access and ability to connect with NBA players. The goal is to “visit some cities that NBA players have never visited,” Guo said.
McCollum has already begun diving into the different platforms throughout China, where he can begin to extend his new partnership.
“Weibo, WeChat, CCTV and all those different networks allow you to connect better with the people in China,” McCollum said. “I’m really looking forward to better interject myself into that market.”
As someone who has built up his own brand in China — perhaps well beyond what his stateside potential might’ve been — Turner is pleased to see his recruitment efforts proved worthwhile.
“With what he can do to magnify his brand in China, he was smart enough and well aware of what that opportunity meant,” Turner said. “To have another teammate and another big-time player in the league to represent the brand, is always better for the brand. It shows how serious they are about making a big leap, not only in the NBA, but also in China.”
Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.