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COMPANIES • THE BUSINESS OF SPORTS


already been on an upwards trajectory, albeit a modest one, since the middle of the last decade. In 2005, average crowds for CSL


matches were around 10,000, but by 2011, thanks to a concerted effort to eliminate graft and improve quality of play, crowds had increased to just under 18,000. Tis figure is roughly the same as US Major League Soccer or Japan’s J. League, two competitions launched in the mid-90s at the same time as Chinese professional soccer. An influx of investment showed that


businesses recognized this potential. Nike signed a 10-year contract, reported by various Chinese media sources to be worth US$15 million a year, with the CSL in 2010 to supply branded playing kits for all clubs, while Adidas inked a multi-million contract to provide kits for the Chinese national team. Toshiba sponsored the Chinese FA


Cup last year for an undisclosed amount, while Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group and tire multinational Pirelli have sponsored the CSL. And last month, US sports marketer IMG, which helped launch Chinese professional football in 1994, announced its return with a new 10-year deal to promote the CSL. It’s not only the big boys who can


benefit from the upsurge in the game. Langston Smith, who with Oceans Mar- keting promoted Manchester United’s exhibition match with Shanghai Shen- hua in July, said he wouldn’t be surprised if smaller sporting gear companies angle for the commercial Chinese soccer mar- ket.


“Nike has the CSL on lockdown with


a great 10-year deal. However, the CSL’s new money may help increase the soccer market and smaller brands may position themselves differently in order to take some market share away from Nike/Adi- das,” said the Beijing-based sports mar- keter. It was partly on the back of this


upward investment trend that Ever- grande Real Estate bought Guangzhou Pharmaceutical FC in early 2010 for around RMB100 million (US$15.98 million). Evergrande chairman Xu Jiayin, one of China’s richest men, stated his aim of making the team the champion of not only China but also the Asian Champi- ons League. Tis massive investment saw the club


snap up much of the best talent China has to offer alongside the aforementioned


Players in China, including Drogba, are now among the highest- paid in the world, even though they play in a league which is nowhere near as well attended, or as commercially developed, as the top European leagues


Conca and Barrios, helping Evergrande to win the CSL at a canter last year. Despite the influx of sponsorship


money, it’s clear to anyone taking even a cursory glance over the CSL that the sums just do not add up. Players in China, including Drogba, are now among the highest-paid in the world, even though they play in a league which is nowhere near as well attended, or as commercially developed, as the top European leagues. But the effectiveness of soccer teams as advertising platforms means Chinese companies and wealthy individuals are still happy to invest in loss-making ven- tures. And the new money coming into the


game isn’t being spent for soccer’s ben- efit only, cautioned Brandon Chemers, managing editor of Chinese soccer news website Wild East Football. Club owners see investing in city soccer teams as a way to curry favor with local governments and build political connections. “Massive real estate companies, prof-


iting off the jumps in property prices, have made a killing and certain individu- als see soccer as a way to raise their pro- file. Te same is true with the local and provincial governments in certain situa- tions,” he said. Wild East Football’s Chemers agrees


the new money will lead to increased business opportunities but warned that soccer still has image problems in China. Te Chinese game is riddled with eccen- tricities which affect the marketability of the sport. For example, the final round of games


last season was played at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, when most fans were working. Te CSL never offered any official explanation for the bizarre climax,


but it was thought the timing was an anti-corruption measure.


Back to basics What is required most of all to help Chi- nese football flourish into a mature sports market is a new and sustainable approach to grassroots football. Trevor Lamb, inter- national projects coordinator and coach at Hangzhou-based youth soccer club Sinobal FC said the sport remains under- valued in China by both local authorities and the public, and there is not enough organization at the youth level. “At football fields open to the public


you can sometimes see over a hundred players playing in over 10 overlapping small-sided matches simultaneously. It’s complete chaos,” said Lamb, who puts the problem down to a lack of space in cities for public or commercially operated fields.


“Most Chinese are still not willing to


spend lots of money on playing football, or many other sports,” he said. “So while some will spend thousands of renminbi on a new iPhone, they won’t pay a couple of hundred renminbi for a season of regu- lar competitive football and proper gear to play in.” Many Chinese are also reluctant to


spend money on watching the sport, an issue Lamb claims Chinese clubs are ill- prepared to tackle. “Chinese clubs have little awareness of things like corporate social responsibility projects [or having] club officials, players and coaches inter- act with fans.” Chinese soccer also suffers from the occasional sudden departure of clubs from one city to another, disrupt- ing efforts to build a team’s fan base and culture. Te increasing excitement obscures


the fact that China’s love of soccer con- tinues to be limited largely to foreign teams. Big European clubs attract thou- sands of followers watching online and in the stands when they tour in China. And it’s mainly because of recent imports of big-name, big-money foreign players that this latest wave of interest in the game has arisen. Avid fans and players of the game in


China argue that the country needs to channel this upsurge into increased par- ticipation at an amateur level. Only then will Chinese learn to love their native soccer players and teams a little more and create the foundation on which a mature and established football market can be built.


China Economic Review • November 2012 15


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