By Gustavo Spanholi

In the next installment of our UCFB In Focus series, Brazilian Gustavo Spanholi, a lecturer in Football Business and Sport Management, takes a look at the Chinese football market and how the biggest football country in the world, his homeland, can break into the Asian powerhouse similar to clubs in Europe.

Gustavo’s entry has been split into three sections, which will be published week-by-week over the Christmas period, looking at what Brazil knows about China, where it can fit into the market, and finally, how it can affect goings on and off the field.

Transfer window. Athletes. Money. It is only natural that the answer to this question be concentrated in this axis of rapid associations. But, of course, there is much more than that. The cultural complexity involving any approach to China is also perceived when it comes to the business of football. In order to provide more answers to the question that opens this text, today I start a series of three articles dedicated to reporting my recent experience in this fascinating new sport destination.

At the beginning of June, I was in Shanghai to speak at the 2016 World Soccer Congress. Being my third season in the country and already having good connections in the Chinese football industry, I was invited to present business opportunities in Brazilian football – as well as athletes – to the country’s sport organisations and institutions, but I soon realised that this challenge was not just mine.

On the first day, I came across a lot of speakers and guests sharing the same spirit. At an event including heavyweights such as FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and the Italian, English and French Football Associations, the only difference between them was the current level of involvement with China.
The curious thing was to realise the humility of everyone trying to present themselves in the best way to the Chinese, with a common goal: improving relations and consequently capture the abundant financial resources of the country.

It was here, on this path of closer relations with one of the most powerful GDPs in the world, that I realised a crucial first point that Brazil lacks. From India to Greece, from the Scottish Premier League to the powerful Bundesliga, something very simple is always present: strategy. Consistent, clear, and with a very well defined focus. I ask you: is there a big Brazilian club or entity with such a strategy today regarding Asia?

I’m not talking about something highly complex. You have to be simple because football is simple. There are European clubs with offices located in China building lucrative regional partnerships. There are others engaging further with the sponsorships they already have from the region. European leagues are continually working to improve relations and increase broadcasting revenues. Federations are working hard to exchange methods in the development of Chinese grassroots football. Strategies vary widely, but they do exist and are very precise.

Another very interesting learning point for Brazil is the understanding of an internationalisation project. Any strategy, even if with a beautiful marketing package, is closely linked to the core of football: the athletes, teams and matches. It seems obvious, but knowing the reality of Brazilian clubs, well, it isn’t. It is simply impossible to come up with any plan of a relationship, be it with China or any other market, which is only in charge of the marketing department. At a club, league or federation, the units that take care of football, operations, marketing, etc. are inseparable. Come to think of it, this should work for any project, right?

It is worth remembering that the Brasileirao and Copa Libertadores has almost insignificant penetration in Asia, in contrast to the Premier League and La Liga, who change kick-off schedules especially for the continent.

Seeking a partnership with Asia and its leading country is key to what Brazil want to be in the future, whether protagonists or just part of a chain of reflexes. Close relations with a power that is growing +6.7% (1st quarter 2016) is even more essential for a country like Brazil, with a retraction of -3.8% (2015). Chinese groups already dominate giants like Inter Milan and other clubs in the premier divisions of Spain and France, to mention a few. Its broadcasting and social media agencies are a key financial channel to leverage the dominance of leagues such as that in Spain or England. Silently, or at least out of Brazilian hearing, China is progressing aggressively in world football.

What motivates China’s strides in the football industry? I’ll tell you in the next chapter.