August 9, 2008 3:37 PM
The Greatest Free Ad EverTo understand the enormity of last night's torch lighting ceremony, with potentially billions of eyes watching as former Chinese gymnast Li Ning flew through the Beijing night, consider this:
Imagine the year is 1996. Reebok is the official sponsor of the Games. They've spent quite a bit of money trying to convince the world to buy Reebok shoes and clothing. The Atlanta organizing committee is keeping things hush about who will light the torch. And then, imagine this: Nike CEO Phil Knight parachutes into the Opening Ceremonies, torch in hand, and lights the Olympic flame. The next day, everyone's talking about Nike, and nobody's talking about Reebok.
Sound far fetched? Not if you think about what happened last night.
Li Ning isn't just China's most famous gymnast. He's also created the most popular Chinese shoe company, Li-Ning. This year, they're outfitting tons of Olympians, like Argentina's basketball squad, Tanzania's track & field athletes and even China's ping pong players. But they're not an official Olympic sponsor, which means a diminished role for the company in terms of domestic and international advertising during the Games.
Official Olympic sponsors -- like Coca Cola, which has spent more than $70 million just for the right to be a sponsor, and Adidas, the clothing line and shoe of Beijing 2008 -- have everything riding on these Games. They're counting on visibility to boost their market share in a country of 1.3 billion.
So you can imagine how executives at Adidas must have felt when Li Ning stole the biggest moment in the entire Opening Ceremonies. A billion people in China saw him running across the rafters at the Bird's Nest and thought not just of the gymnast but also of his shoes. The exposure alone last night on CCTV, along with the picture of Li Ning that ran on the front page of every national newspaper here, easily makes it the greatest two or three minutes of free advertising in television history.
For those of you who disagree, don't forget: this entire country was tuned into the Opening Ceremonies, and worldwide, millions more saw Li Ning light the torch and learned that he owns a shoe company. Even the best Clydesdale ad at the Super Bowl doesn't reach 100 million people.
One more question people should be asking: seeing as Li Ning represents one of Adidas' biggest competitors, did the moment violate some sort of contract between Adidas and the IOC? I cant imagine so. But if I was over at Adidas, I'd be wondering how exactly one man just sold millions of sneakers without ever spending a penny (well, technically, a yuan).
Who knows what kind of profit Li-Ning will reap from the torch lighting, though I can tell you that both of the company's stores in the popular Wangfujing District (see photo, above right) were packed today. At the same hour, just down the street, Adidas and Nike weren't doing nearly as much business.
There is some irony in all of this, though: Li Ning was wearing Adidas clothing while lighting the torch. After all, they're still the official sponsor of the Games.