Liu Xiang's fall from grace at last year's Beijing Olympics has cost the healing hurdles star 87 percent of his endorsement value, according to a report by an independent research organization.
Only one of Liu's 12 sponsors have extended their current contracts with him, while his per-brand endorsement value has plummeted from $2.2 million to $292,000, the Guangzhou-based China Brand Research Institute claimed in its report last week.
The report has inflamed China's Athletics Administrative Center, which slammed it as being groundless.
"Some people may believe this report, but I don't trust those figures," said Vice-Director Wang Dawei, also head of marketing. "There are too many research organizations like this nowadays," he said, disputing the credibility of their findings and their true independence.
Wang said that the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medallist and reigning world champion remains a hot target for both foreign and domestic brands.
This remark follows a tradition of defending Liu that the national athletics commission put in place in the wake of his dramatic exit from the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium on Aug 18, 2008, during the preliminaries of the 110m hurdles. Liu is now training lightly in Shanghai as he recovers from Achilles' surgery in the US.
Wang said he believed more of the star's sponsors would continue to pledge their allegiance to him.
"For his sponsors, some of the contracts have not expired yet and most of them are under discussion with us now. But we are sure that more than one will extend," he said.
Set up in 2002, the China Brand Research Institute calls itself an independent consultancy organization and claims that Liu's report was worked out through its "own research channel".
"No one asked us to do the report. We elected to do so on our own initiative because Liu is so well known," spokesman Zheng Xueqin told China Daily by phone yesterday.
"We can ensure the accuracy and authority of the report. Since the athletics administrative center was (indirectly) involved in it, we can understand their comments."
According to the institute's findings, only sportswear giant Nike has extended its contract with Liu, while the others are preparing to jump ship due to his six-month layoff from competition. The report mentioned Amway Nutrilite specifically as one of the departing sponsors.
But according to a statement sent by Amway to China Daily yesterday, the American-based nutrition company "has extended our contract with Liu successfully."
It went on to say that "we have a very good cooperation (with Liu). Amway is fully behind his bid to return to competition soon and achieve more glory."
Amway and Nike are not alone. Since the beginning of the year, a new commercial advertisement by Coca-Cola featuring Liu and Houston Rockets' Chinese center Yao Ming has hit TV screens across the country.
Liu's income and media appearances still rank second to Yao on Forbes list of Chinese celebrities, issued on Tuesday, although his overall ranking fell from second to fifth.
The institute's previous report on Liu's commercial value in 2007 also caused controversy as it said his gold medal from the Athens Games earned him a total of 461 million yuan, a figure denied at the time by athletics officials.
On the black-or-white issue of Liu's value having dropped, however, both sides were in full agreement. Chinese sports officials put most of the blame for this on the global financial crisis.
"Due to (this), lots of companies have scaled back on their signings, so many celebrities have become devalued," said Wang. "This is the way a market usually works."
He said standards would not be dropped in the search to keep Liu a household name with just the right kind of image for China's boy-next-door track star.
"We won't lower the bar when it comes to choosing sponsors for him," said Wang. "The center will be just as strict as ever when it comes to that."
(China Daily March 26, 2009)