The worst-kept secret in the basketball shoe business is about to be finalized.
Chinese shoe brand Li-Ning will announce Wednesday morning in China that it has officially signed Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
"This is a great opportunity for me," Wade told me. "I can either choose to stick to the status quo or be a trailblazer."
Li-Ning represents the third shoe brand Wade has worn in his career. Overlooked by Nike, which spent time and money securing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft, Wade signed with Converse. Weeks later, Nike bought Converse. Wade stuck with the Converse brand until 2009, when he switched to the Jordan Brand, also owned by Nike.
Wade said he weighed the pluses and minuses when considering whether to leave Jordan.
"In the end, the pros outweighed the cons," Wade said. "Jordan might have that cool factor, but I'm at a different point in my career. I want to be involved in building something."
Wade said he knows that challenges lie ahead because "people don't like to change the brands they know."
It's certainly Li-Ning's greatest effort to break through in the basketball business, both in China and the United States. The company had hoped to become relevant in the market after previously signing Shaquille O'Neal, Baron Davis and Evan Turner.
In the past, Chinese shoe brands like Li-Ning, Anta and Peak have gained a reputation of signing NBA players at the end of their careers. But the Wade move is a departure from the strategy.
The exact financials are not known, but it's a multimillion dollar deal and will last until Wade retires and into his early retirement. Wade will also get "significant" equity in the company, according to his agent, Henry Thomas, something that Wade wouldn't be able to get with Nike or adidas.
Signing Wade won't guarantee success for Li-Ning. Nike owns 95 percent of the basketball shoe business in the United States, and attempts by other big brands have struggled to get even the smallest piece of the pie. Just look at Under Armour, which has so much clout in the apparel space among major U.S. retailers, fighting to get any bit of shelf space in the basketball shoe game.
Conquering China with Wade is a little different given that Li-Ning was founded by Chinese gymnast Li Ning, who won six medals at the 1984 Olympics. The company, which did $1.4 billion of total business in 2011, also reaches deeper into China than Nike or adidas does thanks to years of perfecting distribution deep into rural areas. On the flip side, Nike did more business in China alone in 2011 ($2.1 billion) than all of Li-Ning's revenues, roughly 10 percent of which are from basketball sales.
Brian Cupps, Li-Ning's vice general manager of basketball, said the brand will first unveil a Wade shoe, with an apparel collection to follow. Cupps said the immediate sales opportunity is greater in China, where Wade and the brand are already known, versus in the U.S., where brand awareness is the first goal of the partnership.
Although Wade's expiring Nike contract made things convenient for Li-Ning, Cupps insisted they got the "game-changer" they wanted.
"We did our homework," Cupps said. "We tested what people think of Dwyane in China and it was high. It's a culture that takes a lot of pride in winning, so his two championships are important. We looked at younger players, and the focus group just didn't come back as strong."
When it came time for Cupps to pitch to Wade, he explained to him the China paradox.
"In order to be global, you have to win China," Cupps said he told Wade. "And in order to win China, you have to be global."
Cupps says Wade's first shoe will appeal to the growing Chinese middle class, as the shoe will sell for about $130, compared to the Nike LeBron and the adidas Derrick Rose shoes, which sell for closer to $200. In the United States, the $120 price will suggest a premium product, but not an ultra-premium like some of the Nike+ shoes going for north of $250.
In order to build the association, Cupps said he wants to have Wade on the floor for at least three years before he retires.
"I'm going to play until I can't play anymore," countered Wade.
Wade's relationship with the Nike brands wasn't always smooth sailing. He sometimes wore shoes on the court that were not his signature shoes, and tensions rose when Wade signed an endorsement deal with Mission AthleteCare's CourtGrip product, a roll-on product that goes on the bottom of shoes to help traction on the court. Wade's agent Henry Thomas said the latter was not a main factor in Wade's leaving the brand.