As more Chinese athletes become household names, sports stars are cashing in on their celebrity status by signing up for reality TV shows. Yet playing the fame game can come at a price.
With no major sporting events scheduled in 2017, the demand for sports-themed variety programs, which flourished in China last year thanks to the attention around the 2016 Rio Olympics, remains high in entertainment circles.
KonneXions Media, which produced the hit show Beat the Champions, aired the opening episode of the second season on Zhejiang Satellite TV on Sunday after securing more than 100 million yuan (.5 million) last month in financing from equity funds to shoot the new season.
The first season, which had 12 episodes, involved celebrities competing against top athletes such as Li Na, the winner of two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and Olympic champion badminton player Lin Dan, using rules that heavily favor the amateurs. About 17.9 million viewers on average tuned in to watch each episode, making it the most-viewed sports variety show of last year, according to CSM Media Research.
"The combination of pop stars' rare-to-see athletic improvisation and the athletes' off-the-court presence appeals greatly to today's audiences, not just sports fans," said Zhang Xun, CEO of KonneXions.
In March, millions tuned in to watch basketball legend Yao Ming trek through mountains and scale a sheer cliff on Running Wild with Bear Grylls, a show coproduced by Shanghai Media Group that sees celebrities survive in the wilderness with the British adventurer.
The runaway hit, which also featured Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui, is just one of about 20 reality shows broadcast since the start of last year that have featured star athletes outside of their comfort zone.
"This hasn't happened by chance," said Li Shengxin, a sports management researcher at Beijing Sport University. "Last year was a big year for major sporting events, such as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which drew massive attention from inside and outside the sports circles.
"With the boundary between sports and entertainment becoming blurred, the rise of top athletes simply fits in the quest for star power across all fields to diversify showbiz."
Since the early 2000s, viewers across China have developed an appetite for reality TV, largely thanks to the involvement of big-name actors and musicians. As a result, ratings and advertising revenue have shot up for satellite networks.
Not only exposure, the crossover has brought lucrative paychecks for star athletes, some of them long retired.
According to a report by The Paper, a news website based in Shanghai, the producer of Amazing Race China season 3, which was aired on Shenzhen Satellite TV between July and September, paid former Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang 30 million yuan to appear in 12 episodes.
The men's 110-meter hurdles champion at the 2004 Athens Olympics, who retired in 2015, even appeared in female cosplay attire and a blonde wig to fulfill a task in one episode, although this drew criticism from some fans.
Although a source close to Liu later denied the reported pay figure, Zhou Linlin, the director who filmed Liu's scenes, told QQ Sports in November the amount was significant.
However, athletes' involvement in showbiz, especially those who remain committed in the State-run sports system, has raised issues in keeping the delicate balance between their athletic commitment and entertainment prospect.
Unlike in the West, where professional agents or attorneys represent star athletes off the court, the General Administration of Sport of China, the top sports body, manages the majority of elite athletes in a wide range of affairs from athletic training to public relations and commercial endorsements.
Retired tennis great Li Na and hoops icon Yao were among the few exceptions who separated from the State-run system early on to manage their careers with personal teams.