TOKYO -- Pakistan's sporting goods industry, famous for cranking out 40 million soccer balls annually, or 70% of the global total, has turned a hungry eye to Japan.
Japan is preparing to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics. Makers of sporting goods in Pakistan are investing and innovating in hopes of grabbing a piece of the lucrative Japanese market.
For the first time, 30 major Pakistani manufacturers of soccer balls, volleyballs, martial arts uniforms and training equipment participated in Sportec 2018, the biggest sports and wellness trade show in Japan, which took place at the end of July at Tokyo Big Site, one of the largest exhibition halls in the country.
All the Pakistani exhibitors are based in Sialkot, an industrial cluster in the northeastern province of Punjab. Executives from a number of manufacturers expressed confidence that they can succeed in Japan.
"We know the Japanese market is quality-conscious," said Soheil Ashraf, CEO of Deelux Sports. "If we can make good quality [products] and timely deliveries, we have a business chance. As a fresh investment, we opened a new factory four months ago," Ashraf said. Deelux Sports is negotiating with a major brand in Osaka to supply judo uniforms.
Zulfical Ali Ghuman, managing director of sports glove maker Ghuman Industry said, "We have survived tough competition in Europe, and we see no problem in the Japanese market."
Invention Sports specializes in martial arts equipment. Nadeem Mumtaz, the company's managing director, said: "We have set up an R&D department and we are seeking to introduce new fabrics and yarns. We are the first company in Pakistan to produce functional clothing."
Phedra Industries, founded in 1904 is one of Pakistan's oldest makers of sporting goods. According to Sheikh Zeeshan Waheed Sandal, the company's director of research and development, "Ninety percent of the products made for the Japanese market are done on an OEM basis." That is, manufactured on behalf of Japanese brands.
Phedra also makes fitness gear. Among its key products are weight training equipment, including weight machines, dumbbells and sandbags. The company holds patents in more than 240 countries. "Of course, martial arts gear like boxing gloves is used not only for competition, but for fitness and boxercise," Sandal said.
Sporting goods manufacturing in Pakistan stretches back more than 130 years. Production started in 1883, with companies making cricket bats and hockey sticks for the British Army. With advantages such as low-cost labor and abundant supplies of leather and cotton, the industry has grown to more than 3,000 manufacturers, which make a wide range of balls, equipment and uniforms.
"Our strength is low price and durability," said Hasnain Iftikhar Cheema, chairman of the Pakistan Sports Goods Manufacturers & Exporters Association. According to Cheema, Pakistan makes soccer balls for such major international brands as Adidas, Nike, Puma, Mikasa, and Umbro. In 1982, FIFA, soccer's top governing body, selected soccer balls made in Pakistan for the World Cup. Pakistani soccer balls were also on the field at the recently ended World Cup in Russia.
The reputation of Pakistan's sporting goods industry was previously tainted by its use of child labor, particularly in the making of hand-stitched soccer balls. But automation and thermal bonding have virtually eliminated child labor, many exhibitors stressed.
For the fiscal year ended June 2017, Pakistan exported more than $500 million in sports equipment and uniforms. The industry directly employs more than 200,000 people. Its main markets are the U.S. and Europe, but now manufacturers are looking east.
According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Japan imports 7% of the world's sporting goods. But Pakistan's share of the Japanese market is tiny, at just 0.3%. That gives the country's sporting goods makers reason to believe they can score big in Japan.