With great fanfare, Nike unveiled this year’s must-have sneaker on Dec. 4: the Kobe 9 Elite, professional basketball player Kobe Bryant’s latest signature shoe. The Los Angeles Laker phenom is huge in China—drawing crowds wherever he goes, and selling more jerseys there than any other player for six out of the last seven years.
Given Nike’s recent, disappointing revenue in the Chinese market, could the release of the Kobe 9 be a turning point?
According to Bleacher Report, Bryant’s been sure to make a trip to the Asian nation for eight years running, observing that China constitutes, “a big percentage of my Nike business.” Nike earns around 10% of its total revenue in China and Bryant reportedly sells twice as many shoes in China as in the US. He’s built a following there for years since hosting annual basketball camps in 1998 and is now participating in philanthropic endeavors that are sanctioned by the Chinese government. This year a sculpture of Bryant was installed outside of the Academy Fine Arts in Guangzhou.
The Kobe 9 Elites couldn’t come at a better time for Nike, as its first quarter 2014 (the period ending in Aug. 2013) revenue grew in every region except China, where footwear revenue dropped 3%. The company attributes this to too much discounted merchandise and high retail return rates (pdf, p. 74). But the rise of Adidas as a serious competitor, slowed economic growth across China, and counterfeited goods also contributed to the slowdown. Nonetheless, the company hopes to see double-digit growth in China for the next three years.
Bryant has said the shoe, with nine horizontal red lines stitched up the heel, is meant to evoke scars from surgery on his achilles tendon, which he had following last season. In April, he ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the NBA playoffs after playing seven consecutive games. Many of his throngs of Chinese fans would undoubtedly be eager to take home a pair of the shoes—their oddly visceral design a testament to their favorite player and his ability to bounce back.
Perhaps Nike’s sales in China will do the same.