Why Europe’s top football clubs are changing their approach to cracking China market

Collaboration is now key for Europe’s football giants if they want to be on the winning side in the country

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 1:23pm

You get the sense that China is on the minds of German football club Bayern Munich’s directors and managers. Over the last month alone, three significant announcements (or should that be pronouncements?) have come out of the club about football’s hottest current market.

Bayern president Uli Hoeness has asserted that Germany’s biggest club is keen to make the most of the growing interest in football in China and is looking to sign a Chinese player. Hoeness is reported as having said that “fielding a Chinese player could prove to be very lucrative for [us]”.

The club has also featured strongly both in a league table of the top European clubs online in China, and in the Bundesliga’s Dream campaign – an online marketing campaign where Chinese fans were asked their football ‘dreams’. In the former, Bayern topped the league ahead of European rivals; in the latter, the club was one of eight German clubs securing more than 20 million social media reads as part of the campaign.

Bayern has also been active in education, announcing a strategic partnership with one of China’s leading business schools. The Tsinghua University Centre for the Development of the Sports Industry has been set up to establish and run programmes in sports management. However, the Munich club is not alone in following this path.

FC Barcelona also recently established an education partnership, with Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, to open the FCB Universitas Sports Innovation Hub. In other recent developments, the likes of Germany’s VfL Wolfsburg have opened an office in China, Manchester United have been running school programmes; and Real Madrid are continuing in their strategic relationship with Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande.

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The strategic and developmental nature of these latest developments reveals a thoughtfulness among European football clubs that has historically been missing in relations between them and China. That said, Hoeness’s use of the word “lucrative” was unhelpful, even if this is actually his and Bayern’s intent in China. Indeed, the reaction of people on social media to his comments was populated by money-related emojis.

This was unfortunate and harks back to the bad old days of European football’s dalliance with 21st century China. A newspaper article from 2004 reveals something about thinking back then. The headline read: “Top clubs queue up to import cheap players and exploit huge marketing opportunities in China”, while the piece went on to stress that, “[English] Premiership teams [are stepping] up plans to import cheap players and exploit the huge marketing potential of a country with the world’s biggest population and fastest-growing economy.”

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The almost neo-colonial tone of this piece now seems starkly at odds with how China has developed and what it has since become. Indeed, anyone still holding such views is, at best, ill-informed and misguided. With China on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy, European football clubs will continue to misjudge the country at their peril. The country has a growing middle class, with consumption habits that are increasingly sophisticated, and a huge appetite for social media.

In other words, China is no longer a country to be exploited nor is it a gullible cash-cow (the more ignorant might even see the country as a lame duck) from which European clubs can easily generate revenue streams. It is a tough market to enter, an even tougher one to successfully operate in, and socio-culturally and politically a sensitive country to navigate. Hence, the bilateral nature of initiatives such as Bayern’s Tsinghua tie-up and Real’s collaboration with Guangzhou are likely to prove both more durable and more effective than a short-term dash for easy money and cheap players.

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With China heading towards a World Cup bid, the country needs to learn about football. Most obviously, this involves a need to understand how to identify and development talent, and then build winning teams. Yet learning about football also involves getting to grips with organising events, securing sponsorships, managing security risks, building a fan culture and so forth. Activities such as joint innovation hubs are therefore highly important, as they demonstrate a commitment to the development of Chinese football, as well as making a tangible contribution to it.

All of this is in stark contrast to the more sales-oriented approaches adopted by European football clubs back in the early 2000s. At the time, turning over units was the primary motivation, with clubs often having little knowledge of or regard for China, its people or their culture.

Hoeness’s words suggest there is still some way to go for European clubs. However, as China continues to open up and Europeans continue to understand the country more, collaboration has become the key for Chinese football to grow and for European clubs to make the progress there that they have sought for so long.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum.net, a blog based at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.