Lin Dan is said to be worth as much as US$32.5 million thanks to his many endorsement deals – does he now stand to lose it all?
It might be hard for those outside of Asia to understand how badminton, a sport seen as little more than a genteel pastime by many in the west, could create the biggest celebrity scandal China has seen in years.
But Lin ranks alongside Li Na and Yao Ming as China’s biggest sporting stars. Super Dan’s affair is absolutely huge and has been dominating Weibo.
It’s also somewhat uncharted territory for Chinese sport, where athletes have often been ‘protected’ from the prying eyes of an already pliant media.
In case your attention has been diverted elsewhere by unimportant stories such as how and when Donald Trump intends to blow up the planet, a quick recap: married Lin was photographed by a Weibo user calling himself Detective Zhao with a model-stroke-actress in October. Detective Zhao posted the pics on Weibo on Thursday and almost broke the Chinese internet.
The fact his wife, a former badminton star herself, was heavily pregnant with their first child at the time – she gave birth on November 5 – merely added to the outrage expressed by many of Lin’s now former fans.
Lin has been playing catch-up to the likes of Yao and Li in the marketing game. As an example of his awareness of keeping sponsors happy, his post announcing the birth on Weibo gave shoutouts to Oakley, Yonex and Montblanc. He has advertised umpteen leading Chinese and western brands, including Pepsi, Gillette, Red Bull, Citroen, L’oreal, Tsingtao and KFC to name a few.
In the west, companies have been swift to distance themselves from scandal embroiled athletes – think of Tiger Woods, or Maria Sharapova and Ryan Lochte more recently.
Lin will now be sweating, says Tom Elsden of Mailman Group, a leading sports marketing agency in Shanghai that has worked with brands including Manchester United, the Bundesliga and Kobe Bryant in China.
“The post has reached over 1 billion reads on Weibo, the same level as Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement, and the online sentiment is very negative,” said Elsden.
“The brands who endorse him – Dolce Gabbana, Montblanc, Yonex etc – are unlikely to respond positively to this news and we expect that there will be serious financial consequences.
“Lin has over RMB150 million worth in contracts with his sponsors, and we don’t expect them to stand by him. So the financial loss will be considerable.”
Lin was firmly in China’s state-linked sporting structure as part of the People’s Liberation Army badminton team until last year, when he quit after 20 years. That move was because he was prevented from being involved in any commercial activities without permission, a rule he often ignored, for example when he launched his own underwear brand.
Given China’s strict control over the media, one wonders if the story would have come out at all had he still been a loyal soldier.
“This is one of the first scandals that has happen to such a well-known athlete. Lin Dan is on Li Na’s level of popularity in China, so it is a shock,” added Elsden.
“Chinese athletes are [usually] ‘employed’ by the government and are used to promote the success of the nation and themselves as role models. It is in the interest of the Chinese government for these type of scandals to not be uncovered, so it is a rare case.
“It will definitely be a warning sign for Chinese brands to consider how these endorsements of high-profile athletes can potentially backfire. But again, this type of scandal is incredibly rare, so we expect to see brands continue to leverage the popularity of athletes and celebrities in this region.”
Some are not so sure that Lin will face the fate of a Sharapova or Lochte.
Beijing-based Mark Dreyer, editor of China Sports Insider and former sports reporter with CCTV, said “it is true to say that the rules are different in China” and suggested his swift apology might see him safe.
Lin’s wife, Xie Xingfang posted a picture on Weibo on Friday of the couple’s hands holding their son’s, suggesting they would work through it.
“Our family will support this responsible man and the man who always corrects his mistakes. Thank you for the concern from the friends and fans, our family will be together in the same boat under this adverse weather,” she wrote.
“I would expect there to be more of a wait-and-see attitude than perhaps has happened in other similar cases, where brands have rushed to drop their celebrities,” said Dreyer.
“While many fans have condemned Lin online, it’s an inescapable fact that affairs are tolerated in Chinese society more so than they would be in certain other countries.
“He has responded immediately, taken responsibility and apologised, while refusing to make excuses. It doesn’t change what he’s done, but it’s probably his best chance of this dying down soon – which would allow brands to ride out the storm.
“There’s no doubt that his reputation and brand have been damaged, but I don’t think it’s been ruined in the way that Lochte’s was over the summer.”
Lin’s sponsors were refusing to comment yesterday. Like the man himself, they’re probably praying it’ll all blow over.