Chinese Sports Investment is Key Topic at Telegraph Business of Sport 2017

It’s not only the world’s best footballers who are waiting for a call from China these days. The world’s best sports stadium designers are fielding many inquiries from the next footballing superpower too.

“You can see the rapid expansion of the game there now,” says Christopher Lee, managing director, EMEA, of Populous, who will be appearing at the Telegraph Business of Sport conference on 9 May to talk about the opportunities for sport – and architects – in China.

“With a series of high-profile managers and players coming in, the quality of the football is increasing. They will, in a very short period of time, be one of the major leagues in the world, which is clearly their stated aspiration.”

China is suddenly taking football very seriously. President Xi Jinping, a keen fan, wants the country to not only host but win the World Cup and sees investment in grassroots schools and pitches as the way forward.

In addition, Chinese clubs, backed by state and private funding, are signing some of the biggest names in world football – and in their prime, rather than early retirement. Oscar, the gifted Brazilian, moved from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG in January for a fee in the region of £60m at the age of 25.

He is said to earn around £400,000 a week (across town at Shanghai Shenhua, Carlos Tevez is reputedly the world’s highest-paid player, earning more than £600,000 a week). SIPG is managed by former Chelsea and Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas.

So China is attracting players and coaches; now it has to build new facilities and improve old ones. Populous, which designed the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and is building Tottenham’s new stadium, has worked in China since 2000.

It designed the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre, which hosted the China National Games in 2005 and is now home to Jiangsu Suning, the Chinese Super League team. The design firm is also responsible for Zhuhai’s International Tennis Centre, which opened in 2015.

When it comes to football, China looks to Europe for inspiration, says Mr Lee. “A lot of our clients in China look to the UK and European stadiums to say, that’s what we want: these fantastic atmospheres, these hugely tight and steep seating bowls so you feel you are really engaged with the game, you can see the sweat dripping off the guy taking the corner.”

Populous is about to start work on a training centre for Hebei China Fortune, the Super League club managed by former Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini.

It will be the first such facility in China to be designed for youth players through to first-team stars and will have 12 full-size pitches, a medical centre, hotel and apartments, gym and full support facilities. Hebei officials spent 12 months visiting around 20 clubs in Europe to look at their training facilities before deciding on what they wanted.

Many stadiums in China have athletics tracks around the pitches, meaning fans are a long way from the action and atmosphere suffers. The key, says Mr Lee, is getting fans closer to the pitch and having roofs that keep the noise in.

“Chinese fans are fantastic,” he says. “They are crazy about football, so you already have this wonderful atmosphere if you go to any Super League game.

“Noise is very important to atmosphere. We’ve spent a huge amount of time with Spurs designing the seating bowl, really conceiving of it as a concert hall to create this incredible noise. A lot of it’s to do with the shape of the seating bowl, how that works, what kind of materials and surfaces you have on the roof; the roof is very important for affecting noise.

“In some of our more recent stadiums, in Orlando and Houston in the States, we’ve increased the size of the roof so we can increase the noise. And that will be a big thing in China too.”

Tottenham Hotspur’s Tunnel Club

Populous has tapped into the expertise of Tottenham Hotspur’s playing squad while designing the new stadium. “More than any team I’ve seen so far or worked with, the players have been very involved,” says Christopher Lee.

And while their feedback on the pitch has been crucial, one of the ideas the squad are most excited about revolves around hospitality and the Tunnel Club, an idea inspired by the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers’ celebrity fans could enjoy a pre-game drink right next to the locker room and then walk out to their courtside seats.

“We were really intrigued by that,” says Mr Lee, “and wondered if we could bring that into European football, to have a kind of backstage experience, be next to the players, sit next to the players, literally see the tunnel.”

So a glass wall will separate the players’ tunnel from the Tunnel Club and before taking their seats right behind the dugout areas guests can see the players lining up pre-match. “I’ve spoken to a few players and they really like the idea. They are all very excited about the new stadium and the new experiences,” says Mr Lee.

This article first appeared on the Telegraph website.

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