Awash with red - football balance sheets
Developers have been notable backers of China's loss-making soccer clubs, but a cooling property market adds to risks for the big spenders
Chinese football risks being the butt of many jokes during the 2014 World Cup finals due to the national side's consistently woeful performances, but the really big losses could come off the pitch.
The mainland's business elite has continued to spend lavishly on the world's most popular sport even though most of the mainland's top clubs have been operating in the red.
Fourteen of the 16 teams in the Chinese Super League (CSL) last year posted losses, while sport analysts have estimated that just one yuan of sales income could be generated for every six yuan of investment in a football club. Soccer clubs are known as notorious loss-makers on the mainland, despite CSL matches that attract tens of thousands of spectators and television audiences in the millions.
Property developers have been especially keen to jump on the football bandwagon in order to use clubs as promotional vehicles to boost home sales. The owners of nine of the CSL sides are developers, including Greentown China and Greenland, while a further five teams have been invested in by companies in property-related businesses.
When Guangzhou Evergrande clinched the AFC Champions League title last year, thousands of football fans gave credit to the buoyant domestic real estate market as the free-spending club, sponsored by Hong Kong-listed developer Evergrande Real Estate, reportedly splashed out 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.49 billion) for a dream squad that included Argentine playmaker Dario Conca, who earns about US$10 million a year.
Between 2011 and last year, the Guangzhou side offered Conca a package that would make him one of the richest football players in the world.
According to the Wealth-X World Cup Rich List, star Brazilian striker Neymar has an estimated net worth of US$25 million.
Guangzhou Evergrande became a source of national pride after winning the Asian title and spawned imitators including Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guoan, which each shelled out several hundred millions of yuan to sign world-class coaches and players.
"Chinese football is overheated," said Liu Jingdong, chief technology officer with online football consultancy huanhuba.com "It's foreseeable that none of the clubs will be able to sustain their massive investments in the coming years."
It is an open secret that the extravagant interest in football has a political ring to it. President Xi Jinping is a die-hard soccer fan who has said he dreams of a strong national team.
Greenland, Shanghai's largest property developer, took over debt-ridden Shanghai Shenhua in February after the city government ordered it to bail out the embattled club. Company chairman Zhang Yuliang said it had no interest in football but was forced to step in.
The downside risks for the CSL's big spenders are increasing as the property market cools.
Last month, Greentown China boss Song Weiping invited Jack Ma Yun, founder and chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, to invest in the Hangzhou Greentown football club.
Ma decided instead to spend 1.2 billion yuan to buy 50 per cent of Guangzhou Evergrande early this month.
The deal has been seen by some as a watershed moment for Chinese soccer because it could pave a way for a new wave of restructurings of loss-making clubs.
Sidestepping questions about the purpose for his investment, Ma said happiness held the key to business success. "Football is a thing that gives people happiness," he said. "It's the happiness that enticed me [to invest]."