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After Xi Jinping’s visit, Manchester City have massive plans for China

With more than half their fans in Asia and 80 million in China, English giants are determined to grow in the region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 10:29pm

A personal visit from president Xi Jinping, and bog-standard ex-player Sun Jihai inducted into England’s Football Hall of Fame: just how valuable was October 23, 2015 for Manchester City as they try to entice China’s massive market of soccer-mad consumers?

That selfie Sergio Aguero took with Xi was surely worth millions in promotional spend alone. Even if the commercialisation of football nauseates you, you have to salute City’s marketing coup.

Omar Berrada was one of the commercial geniuses behind it. He was head of sponsorship at FC Barcelona, where he helped end their 111-year-long tradition of logo-less shirts, first with a PR partnership with Unicef, then a world-record 170 million euro deal with Qatar Foundation.

He is now group commercial director of City Football Marketing, part of City Football Group (CFG), the UAE-owned organisation that owns Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City and Yokohama F Marinos.

Recently in Asia as CFG opened its first office in the region, in Singapore, the Spaniard gave me some insight into City’s ambitions in Asia and China – and by extension those of their rivals.

“Its massively important – the stats tell you the sheer importance that Asia has for most, if not all, Premier League clubs,” he says.

“In Manchester City’s case specifically, more than half of our 400 million global fans are from Asia. Of those 220 million, 75 million are from China alone, 80 million are from Southeast Asia.”

Berrada speaks fluent English and Marketingese, repeatedly mentioning the importance of “unique and engaging content”, and the “synergies” that CFG’s unique collection of football clubs (“probably one of the most bold and innovative organisations not just in football but sport in general”) offer on and off the pitch.

“Ninety-seven per cent of our fans are from outside the UK,” he adds “… the majority will never see the team play live.”

To that end, City have long had one of the most impressive web presences of any club. MCFC.com is in 13 different languages, with digital key to attracting and keeping those faraway fans. It’s a long way from City’s origins as St Mark’s FC, set up by vicars to give local lads something to do apart from battering each other.

“We try to syndicate content and be relevant on local social media sites,” adds Berrada.

“We work with Tencent, we have presence on Sina Weibo, WeChat, we do geo-targeted posts on Facebook and Twitter – all this is to be able to engage with the fans locally to give them content that is relevant, in their own language, to make sure they feel part of a bigger group.”

Hence the huge impact of a personal visit from Xi Dada. Though CFG at present have no plans to add to their portfolio – no Shanghai City FC just yet – Berrada shares some of their plans to get involved in Xi and China’s football revolution.

“We were enormously privileged and honoured that the president made football and Manchester and especially Man City part of his itinerary,” he says. “We were able to show him … what City Football Group and especially the City Academy is all about.

"I’m not going to share too much insight into [how his visit to came about], but the Chinese authorities wanted to get some insight into football development, some of the best facilities not just in the UK but probably in Europe and the world.

“We clearly know that in China now there is a strategic drive to push for development and grassroots development in the country and we’d like to embrace that, we’d like to participate and see how we can help, developing football programmes which as we know has become part of the school curriculum, help boys and girls develop their football talent, so having the president visit our facilities and showcase our expertise in that area was fantastic.

“China is clearly very important for us as a group, I’ve highlighted the importance of Asia as a whole, but really China specifically we are focused on, we’d like to develop our presence in many ways.”

Berrada reels off a list: grassroots development, “relative content” for fans, teaming up with the likes of CCTV, trotting Hall of Fame legend Sun out as an ambassador, and of course commercial partnerships with Chinese brands who’d “like to work with a platform like CFG to engage with customers around the world”.

The four or five other giants of the Premier League will no doubt be working on similar plans to benefit from China’s football revolution. But after Xi’s City visit, they might already be playing catch-up.