A Silent War: European Clubs are Flocking to China

Newcastle v.s. Wolves in Nanjing, China on July 17 (source: Xinhua News Agency)

“Lai jiu lai le, dai shen me dong xi?” (Thank you for coming, and you are so nice to bring gifts). When Aaron Ramsey, who was the captain of Premier League team Arsenal at that time, spoke this common greeting out in this year’s Chinese New Year blessing video, many Chinese fans sent their likes online to express their happiness for club’s attention to Chinese supporters. Other than shooting videos for Chinese fans, many teams choose to come to China for their pre-season preparation. When Arsenal meets Manchester City, the defending champions of Premier League, next year, forward Raheem Sterling might tell his friends at Arsenal that they had better learn how to use mobile payments before coming to China next time, because he almost could not pay in a convenience store in China since he had no clue how to use the payment method that is ubiquitous throughout the country.

This summer is a dreamy season for Chinese football fans. The Premier League Asia Trophy returned to the mainland of China after 10 years, in which four teams from Premier League, including the defending champions Manchester City, were competing in Shanghai and Nanjing. Additionally, Juventus, Inter Milan, Tottenham, and Manchester United are also flocking to China to attend the International Champions Cup. International icons like Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Matthijs De Ligt, are now performing in stadiums that are only a few miles away from Chinese fans’ homes.

Although athletes have to shorten their vacations, adjust to the time difference, and bear long flights to Asia while managers complain long-distance and tiring tours might harm their pre-season preparation, clubs still proactively come to China and fill their trips with various fan and commercial events. All those efforts are aimed at carving out a following in the giant Chinese market.

Attending friendly matches in China is by no means a novel idea to elite European clubs. The trend started in 1994, when China started its professional football by launching its own professional league. Since then, some Chinese sports agencies or football clubs started to invite European clubs to China. At that time, the games were mainly between a European club and a Chinese team. The first zenith arrived in 1999, when Manchester United visited China and played a game with Shanghai Shenhua, which brought in over $2 million in profit to the host side. However, the business strategy that those European clubs were implementing was very preliminary and more similar to a one-shot deal: they earned millions through individual appearance fees instead of developing its business ecosystem in China. Building a fanbase was clearly not the main objective, as few superstars would come to China with the team. When Manchester United arrived in China twenty years ago, Roy Keane did not come, David Beckham did not come, and even the manager Sir Alex Ferguson did not come.

However, the easy-money era did not last for a long time. Due to the hodgepodge hosts of these friendly matches, the management of many tours was very disorganized, which irritated those fans who spent hours traveling from other cities and paid a high price for tickets. Chinese fans soon started to demand a higher requirement for both the squad of the team and the excitement level of the game. They were not only requesting the appearance of superstars, but also their complete application. However, since most games were for purely commercial purposes, few athletes approached the matches seriously, goofing off instead. In 2003, Real Madrid sent its all-star squad of Ronaldo, Luis Figo, David Beckham and Raul to China. However, fans were still unsatisfied for their perfunctory performance on the pitch. Although its Chinese tour achieved significant financial success that year, when Real Madrid revisited China two years later, the ticket price for its public training session dropped from hundreds of rmb to 20rmb.

People’s decreasing passion for football superstars also reflected the overall shrink of the Chinese football market and the scattering of other sports markets. After China historically qualified for the World Cup in 2002, Chinese football started its long reign of sluggish performances. Even though Shao Jiayi, Sun Jihai, and some other Chinese athletes were still playing in the top European Football Leagues, they either played for a team that was relegated to the second division, or missed most games due to injury, or were unable to consistently earn a position in the starting line-up. Meanwhile, the debut of Yao Ming in the NBA rapidly increased people’s passion about basketball and the success of the NBA further eroded the share of football in the overall sports market.

The transition happened in 2009, ten years after Manchester United’s visit. In celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Beijing Olympic Games, the Beijing National Stadium hosted the 2009 Italian Super Cup that was played between the defending champions of Serie A, Inter Milan and Italian Cup, Lazio. Since the Super Cup is an official preseason competition organized by Italian National League of Professionals and represents a final battle between two best teams from the last season, the game was much more exciting and attractive and successfully brought Chinese audiences back to the football stadium. Due to this big success in 2009, China hosted the Italian Super Cup for three years continuously and the 2011 Milan Derby brought over €100 million in income to those two clubs.

Another ten years have passed since the debut of the Italian Super Cup in China. In those ten years, the commercialization and globalization of the football industry has been rising drastically and those powerhouse clubs are no longer satisfied with limiting their brands to a fifty-thousand-person stadium. Instead, they are hoping to extend their brand in Chinese football market as soon and as much as possible when it is still inchoate and full of dynamism. A common step is to launch educational programs. Chinese President Xi is known to be obsessed with football and once publicly expressed his concern about the youth training system in China. He once visited Manchester City to observe its youth training academy and talked with the representative of FC Bayern, a German football giant, for its commitment to invest in Chinese youth football. In 2017, Manchester City signed a ten-year contract with Beijing-based Kaiwen Academy to co-found a football education program, and in the same year, FC Bayern opened its first full-time football-focused school in Shenzhen and has opened three more across China since then.

Additionally, some football clubs have taken further steps into non-football fields. In April 2019, FC Bayern announced a regional partnership deal with the Industrial Bank of China and launched a new series of FC Bayern Munich themed credit cards that feature many Bayern elements such as the club’s emblem and the red color. In the future, the Industrial Bank is planning to launch other credit card series, such as a football star series and the club mascot “Berni” series. The partnership not only aims to promote football development in China, but also hopes to facilitate Sino-German communication under the backdrop of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Obviously, the Chinese market will still be the focus of many European footballing giants in the foreseeable future and their battle in East Asia will become even more competitive. This will definitely benefit Chinese fans because a more competitive market usually brings higher-quality services and products. What’s more, a deeper participation and broader partnership between those world-class teams and Chinese brands can hopefully accelerate the development of Chinese football education, bring more Chinese kids to a larger stage in the future, and even provide meaningful cultural exchange between China and Europe.