China has grabbed world’s attention with transfer spree – but will anyone care when league kicks off?

Any football hipster without a social media niche would do well to set himself up with a CSL blog while the going’s still good

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 February, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 4:28pm

There’s far too much football these days, with any self-respecting fan expected to have – at the very least – a working knowledge of the top European leagues and their major players, ideally with several key talking points memorised about South America and beyond too.

And for the real football nerds, nothing but in-depth knowledge of entire continents and terabytes of illegally downloaded derbies from Caracas and Gdansk will suffice. The internet’s to blame of course, giving every young man (always men) with too much time on his hands the opportunity to carve out a social media niche, whether that be forensic examination of Spanish Tercera Division clubs’ accounts or in-depth profiles of the 100 hottest Chilean talents under the age of 21.

Not that this is a bad thing. Had I been born 10 years later my obsessive nerdery would undoubtedly have manifested in this way. But pre-broadband and social media, the king of football management computer games Championship Manager slaked my appetite for football geekery until I finally joined an addicts’ recovery group.

READ MORE: As China looks to upset football’s world order, January transfer splurge could be just the start

Now it seems there’s yet another competition we’ll have to pay attention to, with the Chinese Super League’s startling “my transfer fund is bigger than yours” activity this winter. Back when they were limiting themselves to the likes of semi-washed-up Aussie Tim Cahill, last summer’s best-known signing (for those who don’t watch the Brazilian leagues every week at least), the CSL could be safely ignored by the average fan. Even the geeks could rest easy with a broad-brush knowledge of a couple of the big clubs and players. Now that they’re lumping insane amounts of money at players still in their peak and in demand by top European clubs it looks like we’re going to have to start paying attention.

Which is surely the point. The Sunings, Alibabas, Greenland Groups etc paying for these deals must appreciate this is money going straight into a black hole. Presumably for them it’s worth it if helps spark interest in Chinese football at home and abroad, pleasing President Xi.

Whether this winter wonderland actually translates into prolonged interest in the CSL is another matter

The world’s media has been awash with talking heads attempting to explain to a bemused global audience how and why China is spending so much. Whether this winter wonderland actually translates into prolonged interest in the CSL is another matter of course.

A study published last month by KPMG found that the CSL had the highest growth in attendance (16.7 per cent) compared to Europe’s top-five and fellow ‘emerging markets’ India and the US in 2015. The average crowd was 21,800, on a par with La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1. So locally the interest is there, and surely will hit new heights when this season kicks off in March. Outside China, it is another matter – the CSL website has no information on how and where to watch their games, or at least none that I could find with my poor Chinese and Google Translate. Even here in Hong Kong, just over the border, fans are far more interested in the English Premier League.

You’d think that China Media Capital, the state-backed investment firm that staggered everyone in the sports marketing world by paying eight billion yuan for television rights for five years (the 2015 season went for just 60 million) would have a plan for that. Or maybe they’re happy just to see that pile of cash continue to finance the transfer madness without any hope of return.

Like much to do with China’s economy, it all seems completely unsustainable and completely divorced from reality. And with many clubs’ backers at least state-linked if not outright controlled, there’s a serious argument to be made that the average Chinese person in the street is being completely ripped off to fill the pockets of assorted South Americans and their agents. But as we know, facts and logic often seem irrelevant when examining mainland money matters.

It’s doubtful whether Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira et al pay much attention to prognosticators of doom such as George Soros, who are adamant that all things China will soon go teats up (not a verbatim quote). And in any case, if it all does implode in the next year or two, they’ll head back for another job in Europe or South America considerably richer (though I wonder if agents are insisting their clients be paid in euros or US dollars rather than yuan).

Meanwhile, we can all enjoy a colourful new storyline in the grand soap opera that football has become. Oh, and any self-respecting young football nerd with a Twitter handle and Wordpress account should be aiming to fill that niche as the go-to China football expert. The barriers to entry are high and there’s a definite appetite for content – for now at least.