China’s Decision to Invest in Football is Affecting us all in the Sports and Entertainment Business

The decision by the Chinese Government to take the world’s most popular game to the world’s largest population is having an impact around the world. President Xi has made it clear he wants to host and then win the FIFA World Cup, and football targets have been set so that, for example, there are 50 million soccer players (including 30 million school children) in China by 2020.

For Populous, it’s led to success with the design of our first major Training Centre Facility associated with a China Super League Club at Hebei China Fortune Football Club and growing work on football stadium and visioning projects throughout China. They are being developed not by the Government but by major property owners who are looking around the world, but particularly at Europe and the UK, to understand more about ensuring their venues will be commercially viable as well as delivering a great atmosphere for fans.

In parallel, growing moves into the market by wealthy Chinese investors in European and UK football clubs has gained considerable public interest, and the impact of this phenomenon was the topic of a panel session I took part in at the recent Telegraph Business of Sport conference in London.

My fellow panellists included Michael Williamson and Keith Wyness. Michael is the Corporate Director of F.C. Internazionale Milano, 70% owned by the Chinese electronics retailer Suning, bought in 2016 in what was seen as the highest profile takeover of a European Club by a Chinese firm.  Keith is CEO of Aston Villa, the former Premier League Club now owned by the Chinese conglomerate, the Recon Group. Recon chairman Tony Xia, who went to University in Beijing at the age of 14, has big plans to increase his football club footprint in India, Spain, the US and Australia.

Michael and Keith both made it clear that their Chinese owners were looking for a win/win situation from their football investments. They want the clubs to be very successful with a strong brand (otherwise they have nothing to sell back to China).

But at the same time as acting locally, they also want to be global. They are also using the investment as an opportunity to engage with traditional and new fans around their European investments, and those back home in China. These companies have online and offline platforms serving millions of customers. As their empires have expanded they have built smart information systems and combined this with big data analysis to discover more information about their customers’ needs and wishes. They now want to understand more about their millions of sporting fans in China, especially their spending and leisure habits, while at the same time, penetrate further into the European market.

We all agreed that China is taking a structured approach to the growth of football at home, from the grass roots game all the way up to the Super League. At Populous, we are seeing this in both the growth of interest in high quality youth training facilities as well as interest in the soccer specific stadiums that the China Super League are looking at.  As the design of the new 61,000 seat Tottenham Hotspur stadium becomes a reality with construction more than half complete, we are seeing a growing number of Chinese visitors here as part of their European study tours to look at the best and brightest of football facilities.

The Chinese are taking the Business of Sport seriously. His Excellency Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, gave the opening address at the conference and discussed the role sport has played in improving relations between China and other countries. He said that the EPL is one of the most influential sports in the world and, when asked, also said he was confident we will see more Chinese ownership of Premier League clubs in the next five years.

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