The English Premier League’s top sides went on money-spinning tours of Asia this month that saw them take in a total of six countries or territories, but there was one glaring omission — China.
Many businesses see the fast-developing country — now the world’s second-largest economy — as “the holy grail,” Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said, adding that he did not “quite see it in the same way.”
Nor, seemingly, do Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland, and Manchester rivals United and City, all of whom have been in Asia on lucrative pre-season trips, without including China on their exhaustive itineraries.
Soccer and marketing experts said there were a number of commercial, logistical and sporting reasons for staying away.
“We are in a very fortunate position in that we operate in 212 countries and China is in the top 10 of our strategic markets,” Scudamore said in Hong Kong last week, where City, Spurs and Sunderland each played two games in four days in the Premier League’s Barclays Asia Trophy.
Each team picked up ￡1.2 million (US$1.8 million) for appearing in the tournament, according to the Daily Telegraph.
“For a lot of businesses, in terms of business and marketing, China seems to be the holy grail. We don’t quite see it in the same way because, as I said, we are in a fortunate position where we are in so many other countries, but clearly, just looking at the numbers, it’s a huge country and hugely emerging, emerging in terms of its sporting culture, and therefore we are involved in China, we have good partners in China — it took us a while to find them, but we have some very good partners in China,” Scudamore said. “It’s not just a broadcasting entity, it’s a marketing entity and we are working out in the regions in China because you cannot really describe China as a single entity, given the size, the scope and the expansion of it.”
Premier League teams in recent weeks played in front of fanatical sell-out crowds in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The clubs charge appearance fees and they benefit from sales of official merchandise, as well as trading on their huge popularity by signing myriad sponsorship deals.
Tiger Tian, a sports marketing expert in Beijing, said a combination of factors had kept English teams out of China this summer. Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City were all in the country last year, he said, but added fans in major cities are becoming increasingly “picky.”
“They’re fed up with big names, but poor performances, which unfortunately had been the case on several occasions when Premier League teams visited before,” said Tian, explaining that was less the fault of the teams and more the traveling, difficult pitches and limited quality of the opposition. “Rapidly rising costs and limited sources of revenue are also threatening promoters’ bottom lines. Premier League teams, like everyone else in the world, see China as a goldmine, and ask for higher and higher appearance fees. Obtaining all kinds of government permits is also extremely demanding in terms of both time and funds, and there’s always a danger of a last-minute shutdown.”
Several games involving European teams in China have been shelved at the 11th hour.
In May, a friendly between Italian giants AC Milan and Dutch champions Ajax in Beijing was canceled three weeks before kickoff because of “organizational reasons.”
The organizers had failed to pay an appearance fee on time, Chinese media said.
Barcelona also ditched their game in Shanghai this month “after coming to the conclusion that it could not be played in perfect conditions,” the club said.
Julian Jackson, of the sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, said there is “a fairly easy reason” why China had not got in on the Premier League jamboree.
The league’s failure to strike a deal to have games shown on China’s all-powerful state broadcaster CCTV means it simply does not have the same following as elsewhere in the soccer-mad region, he said.
“Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand traditionally have stronger support for the teams that come here,” Jackson said. “They’ve had every single match on television for the last six or seven years. China, on the other hand, is just really dipping its toes into the Premier League.”
Lewis Hannam, founder of Red Lantern Digital Media, a company which helps sports brands and athletes such as Wayne Rooney promote themselves in China using new media, said Hong Kong was a compromise option.
“China is still a maturing market in terms of holding sports events,” Hannam said. “Ticket prices for games featuring teams from overseas are often over-priced in relation to local incomes, thus leading to underwhelming attendances, while the infrastructure and practicalities of business in China often make the prospect of having a pre-season tour something of a headache. Certainly, China will always seem an attractive prospect for foreign teams, but Hong Kong is perhaps seen as the safer access point to that market for now.”