Plenty of bold forecasts in China’s sporting gold rush – but many prospectors likely to lose shirts

For every big hitter like Wanda or Alibaba getting involved in the country’s burgeoning sports industry, there are a host of dodgy-looking operators

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 12:28pm

“I have great confidence that once this sport is imported into China, it definitely will gather a huge group of fans and refresh the cultural exchange between China and Australia. I strongly believe this moment will be firmly framed in the sports history of our country.”

That was the optimistic declaration of Gui Guojie, founder of real estate company Shanghai Cred, this week as he announced a new partnership with Australian Rules football club Port Adelaide on Thursday.

It wasn’t the only China sporting forecast this week.

“We hope to have one million players in 10 years’ time,” Zhang Dazhong, CEO of Alisports, told the SCMP last Sunday as they announced a 10-year partnership with World Rugby to develop the game on the mainland.

The following day, a 14-page official document, “Medium and Long-Term Plan of Chinese Football Development” outlined plans for China to become a football superpower over the next 35 years. By 2020, China will have 20,000 soccer academies, 30 million schoolkids playing, and more than 50 million people active in the game, declares the Plan.

And cricket’s head of global development Tim Anderson said China was: “one of [our] target markets in our vision to become the world’s favourite sport,” as the captain of Australia’s World Cup winning women’s team Meg Lanning headed to Shanghai to try to drum up interest.

Every sport, no matter how unknown to Chinese audiences, is desperate to cash in on the great China sporting gold rush, and there’s a host of businesses just as hungry. It seems certain that for every success, there’ll be many other failures. For every wily prospector with expertise and a plan, there’s umpteen more rushing to get involved that lack both.

As an example of the former, Wanda Sports have Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man (and one of its best-connected) at the helm of the parent group. One of his first moves was to purchase the well-established marketing powerhouse Infront, immediately acquiring a wealth of sports experience.

Can China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, and Sepp Blatter’s nephew land World Cup?

Similarly, Alisports – ultimately owned by another mega-billionaire Jack Ma Yun – recently signed a partnership with CSM, another sports marketing titan helmed by IAAF president Seb Coe. If these firms don’t have the expertise in-house, they’ll purchase or partner with those that do.

One million Chinese rugby players in 10 years: Alisports and World Rugby join forces to develop the sport in the mainland

You’d back the likes of Wanda and Alisports to succeed – the latter’s owner Alibaba Group has already shown it knows how to back a winner by buying the SCMP after all – but it’s hard to be as confident in some of the other China businesses showing sudden new-found interest in sport.

How Alibaba aims to transform China’s sports market – and help bring the World Cup to the country

Look at this damning paragraph in a story on the website of Yutang Sports, who claim to be ‘the premier sports marketing platform in China’: “Lander Sports is a Hangzhou-based public company which changed its main business from property development and sales to a sports-related business and changed its name from “Lander Real Estate Co Ltd” to “Lander Sports Development Co Ltd” in July 2015.”

Lander is bringing its wealth of sports knowledge to bear in a partnership with curling, confident that the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 will see untold millions of Chinese find a new passion for ‘snow and ice’ sports. Meanwhile, if I were a fan of Port Adelaide, or even Rules in general, I’d be sceptical that the trumpeted deal with Shanghai Cred will lead to a massive upswing the team or sport’s fortunes.

Even the drive to boost soccer, with the government right behind it, has many scoffing. The Plan (it must always be capitalised judging by Xinhua’s reports) is rich in party phrases such as “Chinese dream”, “moderately prosperous society” and even “soccer management system with Chinese characteristics”, whatever that is, but lighter in firm ideas as to how to achieve its forecasts.

One actual plan is to increase the number of football pitches in the country and anyone who’s visited China can see that makes sense – on a trip this month that took in overnights in Chengdu and Changsha, plus a few days in both a tier-88 city in Hunan and the countryside of Sichuan, I saw plenty of seemingly empty new apartment tower-blocks, but nobody playing sport and nowhere for them to do so had they been inclined.

Is it too cynical to suggest that many of these relatively small real estate developers suddenly keen on sport have merely recognised the end of one bubble in China’s fairyland economy and are anxious to jump on another?

Time will tell in the great China sporting gold rush. More than a few fans, teams, governing bodies and sponsors might lose their shirts along the way.