May 25, 2010

Up Fake: China’s Booming Fake NBA Market

Today I wake up at 6:45, drink some coffee that makes me yearn for Starbucks, write for a different Web site and sit down to watch the Suns and the Lakers play Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Suns fended off L.A. behind 17 points and 15 assists from Steve Nash, making the series 2-1 and, with Boston already up 3-0 on Orlando, sparing the NBA the ominous possibility of dual sweeps in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals (on the heels, no less, of sweeps in three of the four conference semis).

After that, I text Li Ball and ask if he and the gang are going to play any ball today. Five o’clock, he texts back. I write until five and bike over to the courts.

We shoot around for a bit and I hop in the first game. No one is keeping score, but after about 20 minutes the hoard of players waiting to play goes from zero to six, and scorekeeping is invoked to regulate playing time. There are a variety of players waiting – a young guy who couldn’t have been older than 20, a few old guys built like houses, a 30-something who, from the smell of things, had been drinking prior to his arrival. 

And then there was one dude wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey. He caught my eye for a few reasons. First, you don’t often see Minnesota Timberwolves jerseys here. Cleveland and Boston and definitely the Lakers, but not Minnesota. They don’t have any transcendent stars (sorry, Kevin Love), it isn’t a major city (just ask Ricky Rubio), and they were horrible last season (15-67 horrible, lost-their-last-seven-games horrible).

The other reason I notice this guy’s Timberwolves jersey is because it doesn’t say Timberwolves. It says “Tim erwolves,” with a gap where the B should have been. That there is either a typo or the thing is falling apart suggests one thing: the jersey is, in Chinese parlance, jiade. Fake.

Jiade clothes in China are everywhere. At the end of my shopping expedition today I was toting a “Ralph Lauren” shirt and a pair of “adidas” soccer jerseys. Those quotation marks are necessary, because while the tag says one thing, you are no doubt buying another. The Polo shirt, for instance, ran me a total of 39 yuan (less than $6). You can’t buy Ralph Lauren shirts for $6. The jerseys were a steal too. Here is one of the ones I bought, the Spanish national team road kit.

It came equipped with adidas tags, and it has that bright yellow adidas emblem right below the neck. Heck, it even says “climacool” on it, signifying that it is part of adidas’ high-priced climacool line of technologically advanced sports gear. It looks and feels real. Trust me, though, it’s not adidas; it’s jiade. Proof? It cost me 60 yuan. In the real world, it costs $70 USD, or roughly eight times what I bought it for.

China’s fake-clothing (and fake-everything) industry has been reported ad nauseum. Reuters wrote this article about counterfeit items – including DVDs that hit the shelves before movies hit the theatres – well over a year ago. The Seattle Times wrote this two-parter in 2006, as George W. Bush was preparing to land in China to deliver a “stern message to Chinese officials about the need to crack down on knockoffs of U.S. products” and pound home the assertion that “90 percent of all intellectual property in China is pirated.” This photo gallery was posted in 2007, showing how a traveler to China can find authentic “Paradi” clothing, “PenesamiG” batteries, and even “Sccoby” shirts (if you like the timeless comic strip Peanuts). And one of my favorites: someone posted this query on Yahoo! Answers, asking, “Where can I find fake clothes in Shanghai?” One of the respondents simply answered, “everywhere”.

(On a personal note…a while back I bought every single episode of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, South Park and The West Wing from a jiade DVD market. The total cost ran me about 50 yuan, or less than $8. That bounty would have cost me close to a few thousand dollars in America. Just think: at the time, The Simpsons had 17 seasons, and if you went to Best Buy or some other outlet, it’d be $40 per season. The Simpsons alone, therefore, would have cost me right about $700. South Park had at least a dozen seasons; that’d be $450 worth of discs. Seinfeld had nine seasons, or about $350, and the West Wing had seven season, or about $300. Add it up, and we’re talking about a lot of money. And still I got it all for eight bucks. Sure, the Chinese versions of these DVDs don’t have director commentaries, and they aren’t as sharp visually. But we’re not talking about watching Avatar or the Super Bowl. We’re talking about The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Hi-def isn’t important. Plus the jiade discs come complete with funny attempts at English like PALY AL instead of PLAY ALL, or DIC NE instead of DISC ONE.)

So yeah, China’s counterfeit industries – from clothing to DVDs to electronic goods – is and has been booming. And that boom has been chronicled for years.

But the one sub-sect of the jiade industry that is especially interesting to me (and pertinent to this blog) is the NBA basketball merchandise: shoes, jerseys and T-shirts, not to mention the NBA itself and its most prized commodity, the players. You can find all sorts of basketball stuff in China that is egregiously counterfeit. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

This is a Kobe Bryant shirt that I saw in Yangshuo. It looks normal enough, right? Well, there’s one problem. Bryant and adidas, which supposedly produced the shirt, parted ways in 2002. This shirt, therefore, is an infringement on Kobe’s current contract with Nike. Or it would be an infringement if it were the least bit real. (The NBA logo is thrown in just to make sure the maximum number of entities are being had.)

Like that Bryant shirt, these socks look pretty legit. The packaging is adorned by the NBA’s best young player, LeBron James, and those Nike and adidas logos look pretty darn real. Therein lies the problem: Nike and adidas…sharing identical packaging…and sharing the same player. Not likely. As with Bryant, LeBron inked a bajillion dollar deal with Nike, a deal which prohibits his likeness from being used by adidas to sell products. Of course, this isn’t adidas’ doing. (Quick note on LeBron’s contract with Nike. It was a seven-year deal completed in May of 2003 when LeBron was 18 years-old, and it was worth $90 million. Not only was LeBron 18, but he was more than a month away from even being drafted. I still find that unthinkable. All of it. Especially the fact he was 18.)

Notice anything wrong here? Nike packaging for a pair of socks that aren’t Nike. The logo resembles that of Saucony, but I really can’t be sure. Whatever it is, it isn’t Nike.

Here’s Kobe Bryant’s mug being used to sell some unlicensed merchandise.

The NBA is getting ripped off in all of these pictures because both its logo and players are being strewn about products that aren’t legitimate. But this one is especially egregious. Notice that there are three different companies, side by side, whoring out the NBA logo. Jerry West would be ticked.

Not only does this guy bear a striking resemblance to Frederick Sykes, but he is wearing some jiade clothing as well. If you go here, you’ll see that all L.A. Lakers gear is manufactured by adidas, even lame T-shirts that say stuff like “Where The Black Mamba Strikes.” I say we put Dr. Richard Kimble on the case.

I just can’t believe that the NBA or the Chicago Bulls would sanction this abomination: a quasi-cowboy hat with a huge Bull on it. Everyone who won all those Bulls championships – Jordan and Pippen and Jackson and the crew – is still alive. But when one of them dies, he will roll over in his grave because of this.

Finally, the Mother Lode. An entire wall lined with fake jerseys. Here we have, from left to right, LeBron, Carmelo, KG, Kobe, Derrick Rose and, cut off because the cameraman is a hack, an old Allen Iverson 76ers jersey. Unlike that previous pic of the Lakers jersey that had no brand logo, these jiade jersey are adorned by adidas’ three stripes. 

Alas, they’re all fake. They sell for 150 yuan, or about $22. Online, adidas sells these for $79.99. And it’s not like adidas is philanthropic in China and simply hooks up the citizenry. I’ve bought two pairs of adidas shoes here – real shoes, from a real adidas outlet store – and the conversion is exactly one-to-one. For instance, the Derrick Rose basketball kicks I bought last November were about 700 yuan, or a hair over $100. That’s precisely what they would be back home.

I’m not interested in philosophizing about the morality of counterfeit NBA gear (or counterfeit anything). You can argue (quite successfully) whatever point you want. On the one hand, sure, it’s ripping people off. It’s screwing Kobe and LeBron and the NBA out of royalties that, legally, should be theirs. In that sense, it is immoral. But at the same time, it’s hard to feel too sorry for these multimillionaires missing out on a slice of their jersey sales, jerseys that are priced through the roof because these guys likely wouldn’t have signed their respective deals for anything less than the GDP-sized sums they did. 

Plus, these products are good for the Chinese economy. People have jobs making this bogus merchandise, and regular Chinese citizens – most of whom aren’t rich enough to pay $80 USD for a shirt – can rock their favorite gear. From that Seattle Times article:

Counterfeiting has become deeply entrenched in China's economy as a source of income for both small-time hawkers and powerful local tycoons. With millions of jobs dependent on the counterfeit trade, many in China think cracking down would mainly benefit foreign companies.

I’m in no position to pass judgment; I’m not an innocent bystander. Indeed, I own my own slice of China’s vast fake basketball clothing market: a Larry Bird 1992 All-Star Game jersey that my brother bought me two years ago. With a huge star adorning the chest and a hefty dose of early-90s font, it is the epitome of Old School, and I love it. 

I used to get such a kick out of seeing the look of dudes’ faces when I strolled into an all-black gym wearing this Larry Bird jersey. I’m not imposing physically (at all), so the perception was far more “dorky” than “savvy.” I usually played pretty well in it though, channeling my inner Bird and deriving the magical residue that was surely imbued into that jersey, even if it was jiade.

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