China’s Sportswear Market

Sportswear in China is growing rapidly, and international retailers and brand should take note.

by Coresight Research


The sportswear market in China is one of the largest and fastest-growing in the world, and is driven by several factors, including the presence of a large millennial population, an increase in active lifestyles and sports participation among the population, and the popularity of sportswear as an extension of casualwear in fashion, as epitomized by athleisure. 

This report, which is part of our Category Outlook series that reviews the prospects for specific markets, gives an overview of China’s sportswear market and its growth prospects. It highlights the main drivers contributing to the dynamism of the industry and illustrates the competitive environment as well as the strategies that the top-three industry players in China—Nike, Adidas and Anta Sports—have been pursuing in the market.  

The China Sportswear Market: A Large and Fast-Growing Category

China’s sportswear market grew 12% to ¥212.1 billion ($31.4 billion) in 2017, making it the second-largest sportswear market globally after the US, according to Euromonitor International. The sportswear industry in China is expected to maintain its momentum, with an average annual rate of 11% growth in the five-year period through 2022, according to our analysis of Euromonitor International data shown in Figure 1.  

Two main trends have been contributing to the dynamism of the market: an increasing number of consumers pursuing active lifestyles and participating in sports, and the popularity of sportswear as an extension of casualwear in fashion, as epitomized by athleisure. 

The widespread use of social media and mobile technology has contributed to the growth of the sportswear sector in China by encouraging participation in fitness activities:

-   Consumers use social media such as WeChat and Weibo to post snapshots of themselves working out at the gym or of their athleisure outfit.

-   Chinese fitness app Keep reached 100 million registered users in August 2017.

-   Fitness key opinion leaders (KOLs) on platforms such as Weibo and WeChat have thousands of followers and are a powerful marketing tool for companies.

As an example, Canadian sportswear company Lululemon has been using KOLs at events to promote yoga participation, such as Unroll China 2017—a large gathering in Beijing that the company organized in June 2017—which attracted more than 5,000 people and saw the participation of Tiffany Hua, an influencer with more than 80,000 followers on live-streaming platform Inke. 

Aesthetic is very important in sportswear for Chinese consumers. Chinese women’s sportwear brand Maia Active, for instance, designs apparel tailored to slim bodies to make women who aspire to a curvier body shape feel good. The tailored design aims to please the wearer aesthetically, rather than for performance. 

In general, Chinese shoppers are also attracted by the use of hi-tech, breathable fabric and minimalist design that give the garments a futuristic look. 

Market Drivers: The Government’s Role in Promoting Fitness

Several factors have been contributing to the strong growth of the sportswear market in China, including:

-   The growth of the broader sports industry: China’s sports industry—which includes the production of sporting goods and the provision of services such as sports management activities, training and education and media services—grew 11.1% year over year to ¥1.9 trillion ($295 billion) in 2016 (latest, released on January 13, 2018,) according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics. There is still scope for further growth, as the sports industry in China is still immature. Competitive sports are not as prevalent as they are in the US, and participation is more for enjoyment rather than competition, according to Azoya, a cross-border e-commerce service provider that partners with international retailers to expand their businesses in China.

-   Large millennial population: Millennials are the main target market for both performance and lifestyle sportswear, and this segment is huge in China. There are about 400 million millennials in China, according to our analysis of World Bank data, more than the entire US population.  

-   Government investment in sports: The Chinese government is promoting sports and a more active lifestyle among the population to encourage the economic benefits that sports participation generates. It is also encouraging a healthier lifestyle among the population, which, in the long term, should reflect positively on healthcare costs.

-   Big sporting events: Large sporting events raise interest in sports among the population and encourage active participation. In China, this process is often helped by government initiatives. For example, in preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, the Chinese government has been promoting winter sports and is looking to increase the number of ski resorts to 1,000 by 2030 from 500 currently, and to boost the number of skiers to 300 million from about 5 million currently, according to the Financial Times.

-   Appetite for foreign brands: On Adidas’s fiscal 2017 earnings call earlier this year, CEO Kasper Bo Rorsted said that the attractiveness of global brands and the image they project are still quite high to the typical Chinese consumer. This should continue to create opportunities for further expansion for international sportswear brands in the market.

-   Increased interest in sports: Beyond active participation, interest in following sports has been growing in China, particularly for popular sports such as basketball and soccer. Nearly 200 million viewers watched the 2017 NBA finals on their mobile phones, according to the South China Morning Post in September 2017. At the time of writing, the NBA’s Weibo account had 34.6 million followers. By comparison, the NBA’s Twitter account had “only” 27.2 million. There are currently more than 300 million active basketball players in China, almost equivalent to the entire US population, according to the Chinese Basketball Association, and an estimated 307 million soccer fans in China, the English Premier League website reports.

-   Increased health and wellness awareness and physical activity uptake: Active lifestyles have become increasingly important among Chinese consumers. The figure below shows that regular exercise is regarded as the main way to stay healthy by the majority of respondents to a survey of Chinese consumers undertaken by Prosper Insights & Analytics in June 2018.

Competitive Environment: International Brands Lead a Relatively Concentrated Sector 

International companies lead the sportswear market in China, with Nike and Adidas each holding about a 20% share of the market in 2017. However, leading domestic player Anta Sports, with 8% of the market in 2017, was the third-largest sportswear company in China, and is working hard to catch up with the two dominant international players. 

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