Golden goal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am

There's no denying mainland domestic soccer is a billion-dollar business success waiting to happen.

More people watch soccer across the nation than any other sport, outstripping golf, tennis and even the most played game, basketball.

According to a recent survey by TNS/CSM Media Research, soccer enjoyed more airtime on television in China - 16,374 hours - between January and August this year than any other sport.

That's double the broadcasting hours - 8,046 - devoted to basketball.

Fans are not watching the domestic professional game, however, nor are they being inspired to play the sport - the two vital interactions needed to build a successful sports business.

The poor soccer on offer in China's professional leagues coupled with off-pitch scandals means Chinese soccer enthusiasts get their fix from watching televised games from Germany's Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A, Spain's Primera Liga and England's Premier League. This is great news for the sponsors of the likes of Manchester United, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, but a disaster for the future of Chinese soccer.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) this month reported healthy sponsorship income, with the recently concluded 2009 season showing accounts worth an estimated 150 million yuan (US$21.97 million). The combined audience for matches totalled 160 million fans, according to CSL media officer Liu Zhujia.

Yet the league remains unattractive to most big-paying sponsors because the fan base fails to expand significantly to an attractive business level.

Few supporters wish to hand their money over to crooked officials to watch below-par players. Those sponsors that have paid millions to back the domestic game leave after a season.

The start of the 2005 season was delayed for a month after the 2004 sponsor, Siemens, refused to sign on for another year of chaos and crisis.

British internet-telecoms provider Iphox lasted only a year, while the latest backer, Italian tyre maker Pirelli, is reported to have paid Euro5 million (about HK$60 million) - less than the average turnover of a second-tier British club, though many, including officials, have said this figure is probably lower.

Lack of media interest and low TV exposure owing to the low standard ensures few children are encouraged by their parents to play the game.

As Chinese football flounders in the stagnant waters created partly by poor commercialism and tight government control, the net result is a lack of talent and perpetual failure for the national team.

'The CSL is lacking in two main areas,' says Pierre Justo, Asia director of TNS/CSM Media Research, which carried out a survey of sports business in China and held a Beijing seminar on the subject in October.

'The level of the game is still too low and the foreigners who play in the CSL are not good enough to help improve Chinese players. There is also not enough effort spent on youth development, which is the way to discover the stars of tomorrow,' he says.

'The fans who take part in our surveys and research all say the same thing: they want a higher standard of domestic football.'

He says international sponsors also demand a higher standard on the pitch and a mature market off it before committing large investments.

Justo cites the rapid development of the Japanese and South Korean leagues over the past two decades, a model that has driven the success of their national teams. Both are based on European leagues.

'From a marketing perspective, Chinese clubs need to learn more from Europe, Japan and Korea - all of which cater to the demands of fans and sponsors, and so develop their brands,' says Justo.

The need for police to control 10,000 irate Beijing Guoan fans who rioted outside the Workers' Stadium last month, when they tried to buy tickets for the CSL title clincher, proves the passion for the game and buying power to watch it exists.

That only 13,000 tickets for the 60,000-seat stadium were put on sale, leaving thousands frustrated, also demonstrates the level of incompetence and dearth of marketing and management skills that turn off big business.

It is true that sports marketing is still in the early stages of development in China and it not just soccer where branding is more a miss than a hit affair.

Yet compared with the NBA, which has an office in China to promote and develop not just the game but also the business of basketball, soccer - with its greater global appeal - does not have a collective voice to shout about the benefits of supporting the beautiful local game.

'There is no short-term solution. But the clubs that consistently engage with the same targeted fan base will see loyalty grow in time. These clubs were formed 15 years ago and we are starting to see father-to-son successions. But the clubs need to nurture this trend much more actively,' says Rowan Simons, the author of Bamboo Goalposts, a book about his efforts to expand amateur soccer in China over the past 22 years, and chairman of China Club Football, a company trying to develop the amateur game on the mainland.

Justo is also optimistic. 'The CSL is beginning to show signs it can be a reliable, professional competition. It is receiving better media coverage. But it needs to develop its playing and business management skills to attract the stars who will raise more interest,' he says.

'Ultimately, the CSL and Chinese football in general needs to be more mature and find a way to talk and listen to the consumers - the fans - and offer them a credible alternative to international soccer clubs.'

Soccer rules

Fans living in China prefer to watch Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona

The number of hours of TV airtime in China devoted to soccer between January and August this year - more than any other sport: 16,374

Home demand

Mainlanders are keen followers of China's leagues despite the low standard

The combined China audience that watches domestic football on home televisions and at club stadiums around the country: 160m

Ticket to nowhere

Supporters protested when they were unable to get to watch the title-decider

The number of tickets on sale at the 60,000 seat Workers' Stadium for Beijing Guoan' s final game that saw them crowned champions: 13,000

Kicking their heels

Footballers are restricted from transferring easily and quickly between clubs

The number of months that a mainland player must be 'inactive' when transferring from one club to another: 30