Going Chinese: why dash for cash has not worked in football's biggest market

British attempts to exploit the global game's popularity in China have frequently failed. Nick Harris reports from Beijing

Wednesday 22 March 2006 01:00

China has changed almost beyond recognition since the famous moment in 1978, when West Bromwich Albion were the first English club to tour here and midfielder John Trewick was asked his impression of the Great Wall. "Once you've seen one wall," he replied, "you've seen them all."

Trewick was jesting, but with China well on the way to becoming the next economic superpower, and clubs around the world queuing up to exploit its burgeoning interest in the global game, the joke seems to be on English football. Once you've seen one consumer prepared to spend £35-plus on a ticket, £40-plus on a shirt and £480-a-year on pay-TV, they appear to think, you think you've seen them all.

There is no doubting China's future spending power or its interest in football. The sport was introduced to the country in the early 1900s and, while popular, was not on a par with the likes of table tennis, badminton and basketball until the post-Mao "opening up" era from the late Seventies when foreign was not seen as automatically bad. China was the last major Asian nation to have a professional league, a 12-team government-run organisation that started in 1994.

The game's popularity peaked with China's first qualification for the World Cup finals, in 2002, leading to a revamped top-flight in 2004, the Chinese Super League. But a notoriously fickle Chinese sporting public, combined with state intervention that has hampered innovation or growth, mainly through lack of money, has led to a falling-off of interest. Clubs frequently change ownership, move cities franchise-style and lack large hard-core support. Siemens were the 2004 Super League sponsors but pulled out after a year. There was no sponsor last year and iPhox, an internet phone company, only stepped in at the 11th hour to be the title sponsors this year.

Still, there is no doubting that the game has a large following here. The World Cup trophy came to Beijing last week and attracted huge crowds; the women's World Cup finals will be staged here next year, and the Chinese FA is considering a bid for the men's finals in 2018. There is also an interest in foreign leagues, though it might have as much to do with foreign results being the basis for the national lottery (a kind of pools, played by 150 million people) as any urge to follow individual clubs.

China demonstrably offers an opportunity for profits for foreign sport, dependent on the right planning, patience and luck, as America's NBA has proved. But the notion that China can be plundered by European clubs for a swift buck has been shown to be flawed. "It's been a dash for cash but with little strategic thought," said Dr Simon Chadwick, the co-director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre, which has conducted research in China on the subject, including during Manchester United's tour last summer. "Teams have landed in China thinking, 'There's pots of cash to be made here', and then not found it. Outside the hot spots like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, it's still a fairly agrarian society. A lot of people have low or no disposable income and even in the hot spots there's massive competition for that income."

Dan Fletcher is a director of FMM International, a consultancy that seeks to aid grass-roots development, and advises clubs, leagues and companies on how to develop links between football's established and developing markets. "British clubs should have benefited from first-mover advantage," he says, "but some lost interest very quickly when they realised there weren't going to be huge shirt sales."

Real Madrid have been undaunted about entering such a market. Last November they signed a "co-operation agreement" with top-flight club Beijing Hyundai amid rumours that they hope to take a substantial stake. Yet Sunday's Super League game here between Beijing and Shanghai Liacheng Zobon provided scant evidence of how a tie-up might generate immediate pay-back, for either club.

There were no on-loan Real players, as local fans have envisaged. The crowd, for the first home match of the 2006 season, was enthusiastic but not massive. There were around 20,000 people in the borrowed 30,000-seat Fengtai Stadium. (Beijing's own ground, the Workers' Stadium, is undergoing renovation ahead of the 2008 Olympics). The game was entertaining enough, the chants more so, especially, "You have no manners, and are of low culture" - directed by the Beijing fans at their own players.

But money? All Chinese clubs are handicapped by the league taking most of the TV revenue and limiting clubs' individual sponsorship deals. This makes ownership precarious with club figureheads reluctant to invest much and youth development a low priority. Merchandising is not so much in its infancy as at the conception stage. Beijing's club shop had a handful of shirts, and two of those of were official Chelsea and Real Madrid tops, priced at £36 each and out of most fans' price range.

Which leads to the fickleness of the Chinese fan. "In China, it's quite normal to follow Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United equally," says Richard Li, FMM's man in Beijing. "It's hard to comprehend for English clubs that your allegiance can be spread, but it's often the case. It makes it all the more difficult to turn 'support' into money." It's harder still when fake merchandise can be bought for a pittance. One sample price for four full kits (Man Utd home and away, Chelsea home, Real home) was £20 combined - before the bartering began. With a bit of haggling, a shirt alone, albeit not of superior quality, can be yours for £1.50.

So making a killing on merchandise is currently a myth, as is the idea that English football is No 1 here or that English clubs are on the verge of an internet-led windfall. Serie A and the Bundesliga vie for TV ratings supremacy, with matches averaging between 13 million and 15 million. The Premiership is not far behind, with Spain's La Liga trailing, hindered by evening kick-offs in Europe (the middle of the night here).

Even that does not tell the whole story. Last Saturday night into Sunday morning, it was possible to watch live coverage of Everton v Aston Villa, Arsenal v Charlton and then Birmingham v Tottenham in numerous Beijing sports bars. In a straw sample of four establishments, there were dozens of expats but just one local. "I like English football," Liang Wei, a thirty-something businessman, said. "I got into it because of John Barnes at Liverpool, but actually this is my local bar and I'm here for a drink, not football."

Local sources also point to European clubs' struggling Chinese-language websites as evidence that there is little will to pay for content, with or without live action. Manchester United, in common with Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Roma, PSV, Juventus and others, have been paid a flat fee by a website provider - China.com in United's case - to allow that provider to run their Chinese site. United will earn an estimated £300,000-£400,000 over three years. The theory is that the provider will profit from subscriptions but even as internet use expands - 130 million Chinese now use it - this is not happening. United's site was launched last year amid claims that they have 20 million Chinese fans and 94 million globally. That is actually a "name recognition" stat, not an allegiance as western football knows it. Local sources say China.com and other providers doubt they will recoup their outlay.

Western clubs can make some money from one-off tours, exclusive signed merchandise and possibly through franchising academies - but not, it seems, from restaurants, with all but one of Manchester United's "red cafés" now shut down.

However, a liberalisation of the gambling laws could change everything in a country that spent an estimated £3.5bn in illegal online wagers last year, and no doubt Manchester United's potential shirt sponsor, the Gibraltar-based gambling site Mansion, has noted the potential.

Equally, the NBA model shows that a Chinese superstar can take your business plan to a new level, and if Manchester United's Dong Fangzhuo makes it big it will provide a chance to capitalise.

But almost 30 years after West Bromwich beat China 2-0 here, and Trewick went to the wall, the "ifs" far outweigh the "wills".

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