China’s footballing future: the rise of a new soccer superpower?

It’s perhaps not quite as a big a shock as Leicester City winning the Premier League, but British football fans will be surprised to learn that football was invented not in the UK but in China. Yes, China. While FIFA recognises that the contemporary history of the sport started in England in 1863, when rugby football and association football went their separate ways, it cites as the very earliest form of football the Han Dynasty sport of Tsu’ Chu. In the 2nd century BC.

Perhaps this early Chinese version of today’s game is part of the motivation behind China’s stated aim of becoming a world football superpower by 2050. Certainly ardent fan President Xi Jinping’s football masterplan is in full flow. Its objectives are for China to have 50mn football players by 2020; to build or renovate 6,000 stadiums or pitches; and to create 50,000 football schools within the next 10 years. Football became a compulsory part of the Chinese national curriculum earlier this year and private football academies, often with European coaches, are booming. Real Madrid has been working with Guangzhou Evergrande on their football academy since 2011. President Xi has made clear, through statements and funding, that the state will support private enterprise to double the size of China’s overall sporting economy by 2025. The ultimate prize is a US$800bn sports economy –and for China to host the FIFA World Cup.

The Chinese Super League’s record transfer fees

It’s true that China is not yet quite in the major league when it comes to international football. FIFA’s July ’16 international rankings place the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at 81, just behind St Kitts and Nevis (population: 55,000). The PRC has made it to only one World Cup final, in 2002, and failed to score a single goal before bowing out. But if any nation can power and invest its way into football’s top flight, it’s China. Especially with avowed state and private backing.

Like the J-League before it, at first the Chinese Super League was most tempting to ageing stars looking for their last (lucrative) big playing gig in pastures new. But latterly the players making the move East have been far from today’s early ‘90s Gary Linekers; rather, they have been bona fide stars at the top of their (ahem) game. Perhaps the first time the wider world noticed this trend was in January when Brazilian midfielder Ramires moved from Chelsea to Nanjing’s Jiangsu Suning and his compatriot Alex Teixeira followed – in preference to a move to the Kop. Chinese Super League clubs spent a record US$365mn in the January-February ’16 transfer window.

Chinese investment reaches into Europe

China is extending its reach into European leagues too. President Li Xinping included a visit to Manchester City last year during his visit to the UK, sharing a selfie with Sergio Aguero and a (photobombing?) David Cameron. Not long afterwards the club benefitted from £265mn Chinese state-backed private investment.  Chinese investment in European clubs is already substantial. Atletico Madrid is 20% Chinese-owned. Silvio Berlusconi has agreed to sell AC Milan to a Chinese consortium; its rivals Inter Milan are already under Chinese ownership. An interesting trio of West Midlands clubs – Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion – are or soon will be Chinese-owned. Even Leeds United are rumoured to be near to a Chinese takeover.

President Li Xinping’s exhortations to invest in the game are seeing support in other areas of business too. Alibaba’s Tmall hosts online stores for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, and Alibaba Sports Group was set up in 2015. Alibaba’s Jack Ma, of course, is also co-owner of Guangzhou Evergrande, commenting at the time, “We’re not investing in football, we’re investing in entertainment”. Wang Jianlin, owner of Dalian Wanda, bought a Swiss sports marketing company in 2015 and is the owner of that 20% of Atletico Madrid.

Growing Chinese football tourism

Chinese families are increasingly interested in football too, partly because team games offer the opportunities for teamwork and camaraderie that being an only child does not. And the family interest in sport is rising along with the blossoming of Chinese football tourism. Manchester City became the first UK football club to offer tours in Mandarin this year and demand has been high, fuelled by the launch of the first direct flights from China to the North with the inauguration of Hainan Airlines’ Beijing to Manchester route in June. In fact Manchester is becoming even more of a footballing hub, home not only to the National Football Museum (tours available in Chinese) but also the recently-opened Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs venture, Hotel Football.

As far back as 1999 a Manchester United game in Shanghai welcomed 60,000 fans. These days Manchester United has more than 100mn fans in China, and the evident disappointment when the Manchester derby failed to take place in Beijing this July shows that Chinese fans can be just as passionate as local ones. A January ’16 survey of digital media presence in China put Man Utd in 2nd place and Liverpool 3rd, both trailing Bayern Munich.

More than 350 million Chinese regularly watch Premier League games. Not wanting to miss out on this vast market, Arsenal signed an exclusive content deal with China’s most popular TV football show Total Soccer in January.  And Arsenal already offers stadium tours in Mandarin.

Chinese football fans…want travel agencies to be able to book football experiences as part of their holiday.

Chinese football fans are setting up supporters’ clubs, buying merchandise and engaging with their teams online. They are increasingly keen to visit their teams, not just to have a photo taken, but to immerse themselves in their favourite clubs. To do so, they need to be able to read about stadium tours and museums and book match tickets and packages in Mandarin. They want travel agencies to be able to book football experiences as part of their holiday. And some are even choosing their universities based on proximity to their favourite Premier League clubs.

With state backing, massive private investment, presidential favour and growing interest from Chinese consumers, football in China is unquestionably on the up. Our relationships with the Chinese travel trade and media can help you promote your tourism offering to your Chinese fan base to increase tour and museum visits and ticket and merchandise sales. Contact us now for a chat about China’s growing passion for The Beautiful Game.


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