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We won’t die, says LeSports ... but plenty will trying to crack the Chinese sports market

Mainland China’s first major sports forum tests waters of openness but many of the power players seem reluctant to take the plunge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 2016, 10:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 2:04pm

The business of sport is booming in mainland China – predicted to grow to more than three trillion yuan by 2020 and five trillion by 2025 – but to understand it is like a Confucian conundrum.

Two days listening and talking to industry leaders at a LeSports connect conference left most participants even more confused.

Streaming company PPTV, part of the Suning retail giant, shocked the market when it paid a staggering US$700 million for the China broadcast rights to the English Premier League in a three-year deal – 12 times more than the previous deal.

Meanwhile, with LeEco, the parent company of ambitious internet sports company LeSports, facing a cash crunch, chief executive

Jia Yueting sent an SOS to his old buddies as he quickly raised US$600m. That was the big elephant in the room (driving an E-car) as LeSports founder and CEO Lei Zhenjian and then vice-chairman Ma Guoli told the 500-strong crowd . . . not a lot.

“We have had a lot of setbacks in the past two years,” said Lei, posing the question of whether sports is sustainable – rather than answering it.

“The challenge is reducing costs,” he said, and then another elephant kicked a US$400m football around the room after LeSports laid out that sum for the EPL rights in Hong Kong, double the previous deal.

Ma was a little more forthcoming, saying: “LeSports is facing some difficulty – but we won’t die.”

LeSports claims to house the largest sports content in China, with exclusive rights to the Chinese Super League, Wimbledon, Formula One and more.

It also claims to be the game-changer in Hong Kong with its OTT service, and exclusive rights to the English Premier League, FA Cup, NBA and the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.

Billed as the definitive gateway to connect China’s new and emerging sports business power-players, LeSports Connects: The China Sports Forum brought together administrators, brand owners, content creators, media, promoters and sponsors.

Unfortunately, many of the speakers talked in circles, even riddles, maybe in fear of showing their hand and what they were really up to. No surprise.

No killer apps, no killer content, no killer ideas, apart from NBA China COO Collins Qian telling an enraptured audience they were going to take basketball into schools. You could hear Confucius groan.

It is boom times in mainland sport and only the wise will survive. It is inflated and fragmented, says former UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer, now president of Oceans Sports & Entertainment Promotions Ltd in Shanghai. He stressed the need for people buying intellectual property to engage with experienced and professional people.

That might apply to former England captain and Manchester United great Rio Ferdinand, a key speaker, who wants to make his sports publishing company, Five, the biggest and best in the world.

Ferdinand is well known in China, but realises he has to be authentic, learn the culture, needs and desires to do business. He has 3.2 million followers on Weibo already, but knows that is nothing.

Ferdinand might soon be getting a call from President Xi Jinping to sort out the sorry national team and the state of football.

Mission Hills, the biggest golf facility in the world, is doing its part by creating a Barcelona-backed academy at its Hainan complex to breed a new generation to realise Xi’s dream to host a World Cup and win a World Cup by 2050.

Xavier Asensi, managing director APAC at Barcelona FC, said people should forget the “bling bling of European football” and face the fact that you cannot just create the best league and national team with the wave of a wand – or chequebook.

Tom Byer, respected football coach and head technical adviser to the Chinese School Football Programme, said it all: “The problem is, most people don’ know what the problem is.”

Mission Hills prides itself on being a world leader and vice-chairman Tenniel Chu said partnering with Barcelona, along with their Boris Becker tennis academy, followed their vision of bringing China to the world and the world to China.

Chu says the gentle giant that is China is slowly awakening and it is an exciting time for their business, but stakeholders and speculators be warned, you will get trampled unless you learn quickly and fast.

Openness, transparency and honesty can take years, a lifetime, to learn.

This sports forum was a start – hopefully the power players will be a little more open next year.