How FC Barcelona plans to cash in on Chinese tourists with massive development on country’s ‘Hawaii’

The Spanish giants are to open a football academy, museum and megastore on Hainan Island as they seek to compete with billionaire-backed European powerhouses

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 2:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 7:10pm

It’s two days after FC Barcelona’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain and Xavier Asensi is understandably not too happy.

The defeat rankles with the managing director of the Spanish giants’ Asia-Pacific arm as it would with any fan, and underlines for him the necessity of a venture he has led that will see the club try to capture the hearts – and wallets – of China’s growing middle class.

Club legend Ronaldinho will visit Hainan, the island off the country’s south coast optimistically branded as ‘China’s Hawaii’, next week to announce a joint venture with Mission Hills Group, the largest private landowner in Haikou, the province’s capital city.

Barca will open what Asensi says will be the world’s largest football academy, an FCB museum and a megastore selling merchandise in the massive resort that occupies about the same amount of land as Haikou city itself.

“We are not owned by a Russian billionaire or rich Americans,” says Asensi in Barca’s HQ on the 25th floor of a tower block in Hong Kong’s Central.

“We are owned by the members, that’s what makes the club special, ‘more than a club’.

“We’ve been hammered by PSG two days ago ... we need [more] money to compete with these powerhouses in Europe that are pouring money in out of the blue and competing against us.

“We’re receiving crazy offers for players every summer ... there’s always a bigger fish, always someone willing to offer more money than you can and we have to compete with that.”

Asensi, a former player with Barca’s handball team, said he has been working on the Mission Hills deal for over a year, having rejected several potential partnerships since Barca set up its Asia branch in 2013.

Among the attractions were the tropical island’s clean air compared to much of mainland China, the government’s determination to boost Haikou’s presence compared to the more popular beach city of Sanya in Hainan’s south, and Mission Hills’ own burgeoning expansion plans.

The company, run by Hongkongers Ken and Tenniel Chu, still has some 77 square kilometres of undeveloped land, with plans to add multiple theme parks, thousands of apartments, and more.

“There’s three main revenue streams for a football club – media, game day and marketing and marketing is where we can grow,” adds Asensi.

“Next season our main sponsor is going to be [Japanese e-commerce company] Rakuten, so Asia-Pacific is getting more and more important.

“[There’s] that desperate need to allow us to be competitive, to allow us to compete with these teams owned by multi-millionaires pouring money in to get return on the short term.”

According to China’s National Tourism Administration, Hainan welcomed 53 million tourists in 2015, up from 15 million in 2005. As well as Barca’s initial plans to grab some of that tourist spend, long-term they envisage a club-themed hotel, theme park, sports science centre and a ‘Barca University’.

The football academy will be targeted at the children of holidaymakers, allowing mum and dad to drop junior off for training while they play golf or visit the spa. Interestingly, it will be next to the Chinese Football Association’s new dedicated winter training centre, though Asensi says no link-up is planned.

“The main thing is to bring the FCB mythology to China,” he says. “We’re not here to teach [China as a whole about football] that would be very pretentious ...

“Synergies that might come out of it time will tell ... but there’s no relation, CFA is CFA, FCB is FCB.”

During his presentation, Asensi stresses the club’s commitment to social issues, charity, education, etc. Barca’s previously whiter-than-white brand has been tarnished in the eyes of some in recent years by accepting sponsorship from Qatar, plus massive tax fraud cases brought against some of their biggest stars including Leo Messi and Neymar.

Might the association with China, hardly a spotless ‘brand’, provide further fuel to those critics, I asked Asensi.

“Tell me a country who has no problems with [human rights, corruption, etc] all the things you mentioned,” he replies. “That’s the world in the 21st century.

“From what we’ve seen and experienced we are so confident that our partnership in China is aligned with the FCB values – without rejecting the reality of the 21st century, but not just in China but the whole planet.”

It’s an answer unlikely to satisfy those who accuse the club of having sold its soul to mammon; those who couldn’t care less and just want to see their team continue to rack up trophies will surely be gladdened by the steady stream of renminbi that the Hainan development promises.

“Others come here, they take the cheques and go back to Europe,” says Asensi of rival clubs. “We are not here to take the money and run, you’re here in our Asia-Pacific HQ, only one other team in the world [Manchester United] has that.

“We want to show to the market, partners and fans that we care – and we’re here to stay.”