Missing an open goal

China is passing up the opportunities provided by football shirt sponsorship

Simon Chadwick

Arts, culture & society, Trade and industry | Asia, East Asia, The World

16 February 2017

When it comes to football shirt sponsorship, China is playing in its own backyard while Middle Eastern companies control the field, Simon Chadwick writes.

As Chinese pre-season football recently kicked back into action, I was involved in a Twitter exchange involving several people based in China. The essence of our conversation was that China does not understand sponsorship (particularly football shirt sponsorship).

In some ways, this is unsurprising given the country’s recent history. As the United States prompted and sustained 20th century sports sponsorship, in turn exporting its practices to the rest of the world, China was closed to its effects. But now things are changing, as sponsorship also becomes an integral part of the Chinese sports landscape.

Many football fans will be increasingly familiar with the likes of Wanda and its FIFA deal, as well as Huawei and its various deals across sport, although fewer people are likely to remember Yingli Solar’s sponsorship of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And as for shirt sponsors of clubs in the Chinese Super League (CSL), can you even name one?

Notwithstanding the CSL’s immaturity as a commercial entity, there are two obvious reasons for this: most shirt sponsor names appear in Chinese and, even when they are also presented in English, are the names of domestically-focused companies with which people outside China are unfamiliar.

This reveals something about the domestic focus of both Chinese football and, indeed, the country’s businesses. Shirt sponsorship deals typically reflect the target consumers for both sponsor and club. Significantly too, most of the sponsors’ names on team shirts are those of the club’s owners, who presumably want as much exposure for their money as they can possibly get.

As such, there remains something rather parochial about sports sponsorship in China, an observation reinforced by a baffling incident in the 2015 Asian Champions League Final. CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande made it to the final, having been sponsored throughout the season by a Sino-Japanese collaborative venture – Dongfeng Nissan. This was a 100 million RMB deal, which the club signed in 2014.

However, when Guangzhou took to the field, the team’s shirts instead (and without Dongfeng Nissan’s agreement) carried the name and logo of Evergrande Life, an insurance subsidiary of the club’s co-owners. Not only did this breach the car brand’s contract with Guangzhou Evergrande, it also went beyond what many would consider to be normal sponsorship ethics.

Sure, Evergrande are likely to have wanted the exposure generated by such a high-profile game, but their flagrant disregard for contract and convention was stunning and resulted in Dongfeng Nissan taking legal action against them. What seems more significant though is this incident symbolises China’s somewhat unsophisticated approach to sponsorship.

For a country that is well versed in soft power and sports diplomacy, sport sponsorship does not yet appear to be making any tangible contribution to China’s broader economic, industrial and political goals. This stands in stark contrast to some of its Asian neighbours, who are much more adept at using football sponsorship as a means-to-an-end. In particular, Middle Eastern companies, notably in the airline industry, surely provide China with some lessons in the politics of sponsorship.

Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have all used sponsorship to raise awareness of both their countries and their airlines, by signing deals with the likes of FC Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester City. This has helped them raise their profiles, build their brands, and generate soft power influence.

Moreover, the sponsorships have been used to help enable market entry and penetrate new territories. In tandem with considerable state aid, this has been so successful that the United States government launched an anti-trust investigation into the activities of Qatar Airways (QA), Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways.

QA, and indeed Qatar as a country, are worthy of further attention (certainly from a Chinese perspective), as they have used football sponsorship to great effect. Ten years ago, the small Gulf nation was largely unknown, which is certainly not the case now. Initially, the Qatar Foundation (QF) rose to global prominence with its sponsorship of Spain’s Barcelona.

QF is a semi-private chartered, non-profit organisation, formed with the goal of establishing Qatar as a leader in education, science, and cultural development on a regional and global scale. Subsequently, a deal between Barca and QA replaced this, by which time a large section of football’s global community was much more familiar with the country, its businesses, its brands and, in truth, its influence.

The politicisation of sponsorship in this way is nevertheless accompanied by problems. QA’s Barca deal has attracted strong criticism from human rights and migrant labour activists, with Qatar having long been criticised for its kafala labour system and the consequent treatment of immigrant workers.

A deal with one of Europe’s biggest clubs was thus always likely to generate intense scrutiny. Even so, by virtue of Barcelona’s ownership structure (it is one hundred per cent owned by its members i.e. fans), QA became a political flashpoint during the club’s last presidential election campaign. Joan Laporta, a former club president, stood for election again and made a promise that the sponsorship deal would be terminated.

Although Laporta lost the election, he had made his point; indeed, Barca recently decided not to renew its QA deal, deciding instead to sign a shirt sponsorship deal with Japanese Internet retailer Rakuten. Perhaps the contentious nature of the Barcelona-QA deal reveals something about the powerful effects that football sponsorship can generate.

This makes it all the more mysterious why neither Chinese companies nor China’s government appear to have embraced football shirt sponsorship deals as a way of furthering their industrial, economic, political and diplomatic goals. It is as though China has been left playing in its backyard while the big guns, especially from the Middle East, have slogged it out on a global stage.

This begs the question of whether we should expect China to change its approach. Wanda, (and possibly Alibaba too) seem to have understood the political role that sponsorship can fulfil by agreeing to its deal with FIFA. Given the level of engagement and investment Chinese companies already have with European football, it seems inevitable too that we will see the names of Chinese brands appearing on the shirts of Europe’s top clubs. Until such times however that China looks more outward, then its sponsors will continue to miss an open goal.

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