Football: Opportunities behind the bamboo curtain

With two Chinese footballers on their books, Crystal Palace are looking into a virtually untapped market.
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The Independent Online
MANY BRITISH businessmen have lost their shirts doing deals in China, but Crystal Palace Football Club are now aiming to redress the balance.

Palace's purchase of two leading Chinese players this season has opened up the potential of millions of new Chinese fans all eager to wear the club's red and blue strip. Three Palace executives are in China this week to explore the merchandising and commercial opportunities behind the bamboo curtain following the acquisition of Fan Zhiyi from Shanghai's Shenhua club and Sun Jihai from the Dalian team, Wanda.

Ian Woodcock, director of merchandising, said in Peking: "We are receiving on our web-site a tremendous amount of interest from mainland Chinese people in our replica kits."

Such is the number of e-mails that have arrived from China's fans that Palace is planning to set up part of its internet site as a Mandarin Chinese page.

In their one-week trip, the Palace executives will cover the leading football cities of China, Peking, Dalian, Shanghai and Qingdao. Phil Alexander, the club's managing director, said he hoped to bring Palace over for a series of matches in China in late July next year. "Obviously, we'll have Fan and Sun on our side this time, and that can only enhance anything or everything that we actually do in terms of commercialism," he said.

By coincidence, the presence in China of Messrs Alexander, Woodcock and Stephen Price, director of corporate sales, coincided with yesterday's arrival of Tony Blair, the first British Prime Minister to visit China for seven years. On Thursday in Shanghai, Alexander will present Mr Blair with his own personalised Palace shirt.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said last week that the signing of the two Chinese players "means that there are significant commercial tie ups to flow from that in the promotion of British football in China, a subject in which, as you know, we are very interested".

The pounds 1m transfer of Sun and Fan to Palace has created a big stir in China, with extensive media coverage which included weekend front page photographs provided by Alex- ander of Fan and his new British-born baby girl. A live broadcast across China of the Palace-Sheffield United match on 27 September had an audience of tens of millions. Palace's match at Ipswich on Saturday was shown live on Shanghai cable television, home of Fan's Shenhua club.

Palace have no direct benefit from the sale of television rights to China, as these are owned by the company, CSI, which distributes all British Football League games overseas. Alexander said: "The only way we could benefit is if we sold advertising boards at our ground that would obviously get exposure in China through showing the games on television. It is a possibility. But we don't know how many games they will be showing live."

So the sales drive will be with Palace shirts. These are not yet available on the mainland, but will make their debut in China before the end of the year. But in this land of counterfeiting, will piracy be a big problem?

"We have a unique jacquard on our shirts, a pattern that is woven into the shirt during the manufacture of the material. At the moment we do not believe it is possible to do that in China, so we would make the material in the UK and ship it out to Far East factories to manufacture. That way the local fans can be assured they are buying genuine merchandise," said Woodcock.

In the UK, the Palace shirts, which are British-manufactured, retail for around pounds 40. This would price them beyond many Chinese fans' pockets. "I don't know if it is possible for us to do it cheaper. But there are people in this country who will spend almost a month's wages on a pair of sports shoes," said Woodcock, who used to work in Asia for a sports equipment company. "We want to make contact with a number of key multiple retailers-distributors who could be interested in this type of product. Part of my trip includes trips to factories in Guangdong province."

The marketing effort will start in Shanghai and Dalian. "What Palace have in the UK, is two Chinese players who are the equivalent of Alan Shearer and Michael Owen. The fans would want to be seen supporting their favourite players," said Woodcock.