Populous joins bid to Revolutionise Sport in China

June 24, 2016 / Richard Breslin, Tiric Chang

Populous Alisports Alibaba

Global trade platform Alibaba, the biggest e-commerce business in China, made headlines in September last year, announcing it would join the mission to transform China’s sports industry by creating new sport-specific platform Alisports.

Alisports’ main goals, according to CEO Zhang Dazhong, would be to encourage greater participation in sport, country-wide, and to bolster the global profile of China as a sporting nation.

Acknowledging that, to achieve these goals, it will have to go well beyond selling sporting goods online, Alisports has already begun to make offline progress, including making agreements with international sports clubs and organisations.

On the sports infrastructure front Alisports ultimately wants to develop, own and operate tens of thousands of venues in-country.

Seeking an ally, with extensive experience in elite sports venue design, and with global sports connections, Alisports and Populous have formed a strategic partnership.

What Alisports brings to the table is an ability to leverage considerable resources. Thanks to Alibaba’s success it has mass online clientele – a staggering 470 million users, as well as significant procurement capabilities.

Alisports is also at the forefront of the development and use of highly-advanced technology. This is of great interest to us at Populous as we work to meet the ever-growing demand for greater connectivity and high-tech solutions, at the stadia and elite training venues we design worldwide.

What Populous brings to the partnership is a preparedness to share contacts, and our learnings around sports strategy, marketing and events. Of most value to Alisports, of course, is our commitment to sharing the knowledge we’ve gained, in China and globally, relating to the design, management, construction and operation of major sports and entertainment venues.

The agreement to partner in this way, and to pursue projects together, has come at a time of change in the Chinese market. Whilst general architecture work may have slowed, the demand for specialised sports venue design, catering for professional-level organisations and events, continues to increase.

Populous has worked in China since 2000, leading the design of a number of large-scale sports developments, including Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre (2005) and Zhuhai’s International Tennis Centre, unveiled last year.

Our agreement with Alisports references the fact that large-scale sports venues are largely non-existent or long idle, in some Chinese regions. This provides a huge imaginative space for both the design of new professional-level sports venues, and the revitalisation of those that do exist.

Much of that development will unquestionably revolve around one sport – football. What began in China some 2,000 years ago, as ‘kickball’, with a hair-stuffed ball and a net, is today something of a nationwide obsession.

It starts at the top with President Xi Jinping, who’s reportedly been an avid football fan since his school days. The President has spoken of his love of the sport and his ambition, following on from successful Olympic and Asian Games in China, that the country play host to the FIFA World Cup.

Becoming a World Cup contender has also been on China’s to-do list for some time. This has presented a challenge with the country having achieved limited success on the world football stage to date.

In recent years, the Central Government and some of the country’s largest corporations, Alisports included, have shown it’s a challenge they’re game to accept.

The Chinese Football Association has been reformed, young talent has been sent abroad to develop skills, and international coaches and marquee players brought in to bolster teams in-country.

Government officials made international news last year, declaring football a compulsory part of the national curriculum. At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on football infrastructure.

Progress is being made on the goal to build a prodigious 50,000 soccer academies by 2025. Alisports invests in a notable example, Guangzhou’s Evergrande International Football School. Its opening in 2012 saw a patch of rural China turned into the biggest football academy on earth.

Investors clearly hope that spending on programmes and infrastructure, for football, and other codes, will see China achieve numerous sporting successes, in front of a global audience, and that economic and political gains will follow. They acknowledge it’s a long-term play.

What’s exciting is that, thanks to those grand longer-term goals, Government and corporate investment, and through partnerships such as ours with Alisports, something more immediate, and with widespread social gain, can happen.

The number of soccer fields being constructed in China numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and they are country-wide

The infrastructure Populous designs for professional-level sport always focuses on how all members of a local community will be able to access and enjoy the facilities.

Alisports CEO Zhang Dazhong has spoken of his hope for greater sportsmanship, health and happiness of the Chinese people. I think the sport revolution’s grassroots and rural elements, in particular, could go a long way towards realising that.

This article was originally featured on iSportConnect.

Meet the author

Richard Breslin

Senior Principal, Co-Managing Director - APAC / Hong Kong

Tiric Chang

Principal, Architect / Beijing


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