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Business trends

China's marathon mania sees sports gear makers pick up pace

Market for long-distance events forecast to be worth more than $18bn by 2020

Runners take off at the Xiamen Marathon. The races have grown in popularity as Chinese consumers have become more health-conscious. (Photo courtesy of C&D Xiamen Marathon website)

BEIJING -- Marathons, the 42.2-kilometer-long races that trace their roots to ancient Greek legend, are becoming more popular in China. They and other long-distance races are providing a tailwind for the country's sporting goods manufacturers as millions of runners hit the pavement each year.

The long-distance running market has doubled since 2015, reaching 74.6 billion yuan ($10.8 billion) in 2018, according to the China Athletic Association. It is forecast to be worth more than $18 billion by 2020.

The events have become more popular in China as rising incomes make people more health-conscious. Buoyed by the trend, Chinese sporting goods makers are gaining ground on global market leaders like Nike of the U.S. and Germany's Adidas.

"These events play an important role in supporting economic growth," said Yu Hongchen, vice president of the China Athletic Association.

There were 1,581 long-distance running events in China in 2018, according to Yu, 40% more than the previous year. More than 5 million people participated in the events.

Chinese sporting goods manufacturers are growing apace. Xtep International Holdings has co-sponsored more than 1,000 long-distance races since 2007, 31 in 2018 alone. Around 5 million people took part in events, according to the company.

In 2018, Xtep posted a net profit of 650 million yuan, up 61% from the previous year. That was thanks to a 25% increase in sales to 6.3 billion yuan. The company has a running club with more than 60,000 registered members, the largest such group in China. It has also launched a project to collect data from 1,000 marathoners and running enthusiasts for use in developing new products.

"Each brand has to have a key competitive edge," said Xtep CEO Ding Shui Po at a recent event. "For us, running enthusiasts love Xtep."

A Li-Ning store in Beijing: The company sells itself as a Chinese brand. (Photo by Shunsuke Tabeta)

Li Ning is a retired Chinese gymnast who won a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He also lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer games in Beijing. His eponymous company, Li-Ning, has extremely high name recognition in China, thanks to his popularity.

Li-Ning sells a wide variety of sporting goods, and its clothing products are particularly popular. Recently it has begun promoting shoes and other goods for runners.

The company's sales in 2018 rose 18% on the year to 10.5 billion yuan, topping the 10 billion yuan mark for the first time.

"Li-Ning is a brand that represents China," said a sales assistant at a company outlet in Beijing.

Kunshan Do-win Sports Goods plays on patriotism in its marketing, stressing its close ties with the Communist Party and the Chinese government. Customers appreciate the durability its products, some of which were developed for the People's Liberation Army.

The company is enhancing its brand recognition by increasing the amount of goods it supplies to athletes who compete for China at international competitions, and to athletic organizations affiliated with provincial and municipal governments.

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