The Chinese Spending Spree: Why now? And what lies in store for the Super League going forward?

Part One -> Xi Junping, Aguero Selfies & Politics 

Part Two -> The Domestic Market, Economics Bubbles & National Pride

Part Three: Global Influence, Superfans & the Super League

On the 8th of August 2015 Champions League finalists and perennial Serie A winners Juventus cruised to a 2-0 win over Coppa Italia holders Lazio, with recognisable stars: Buffon, Pogba, Candreva & Klose all involved. Now although the ‘Supercoppa Italiana’ has historically been held in one of Italy’s many famous grounds, the 2015 edition was actually played in front of a 30,000 strong crowd in Shanghai. In fact, since 2009 only two ‘super cups’ have taken place in their traditional homeland, with all others (bar a 2014 stint in Doha)taking place in China.

Now this news is hardly ground-breaking, the footballing establishment has long been aware of the growth market that is Asian football fandom, as seen by FIFA’s placing of the Club World Cup in Asia for 9 of the 11 most recent editions since 2005. Objectively speaking, world football & its major club’s attention Eastward is actually more than understandable given the huge and growing market it represents. The rewards for an expanding presence in the Far East is huge, as pioneers in the field Manchester United can testify to given their Kantar-estimated fan base of 325 million in the Asia Pacific region making up more than half of their predicted global fan base (generously assumed to comtain 10% of the world’s population). It’s returns like United’s which are why the building of a brand in the emerging markets of the Far East & Arabia has become a must-do for each and every major European club (and their increasing number of preseason air miles racked up each year is testament to those brand building efforts!).

Manchester United v Yokohama F.Marinos
Credit: FootballMarkettingMagazine

But besides the footballing establishment making efforts to reach out to Asia, the Far East (& China specifically) are also making moves of their own. In 2016 alone football fans have already witnessed both the spending of Chinese clubs dominate the winter transfer market, as well as Chinese investors purchasing a 13% share in England’s richest club, Manchester City. And it’s events like these that make football fans everywhere acknowledge that China today, for better or worse, does now yield significant global influence over the world’s favourite game.

The Super League, the Importance of Chinese Fandom & Growth Prospects

So although China’s footballing influence abroad is becoming increasingly felt (and will continue to do so with each passing transfer window) much less is known about the its domestic game, the standards of the Chinese Super League, and its scope to grow in the future.

At present, the Super League is generally considered the highest standard in Asia and pays the continent’s highest wages too (although the average figure from 2014 will have been skewed to the right somewhat by the Dario Conca’s of the division). To put it in perspective, in 2014 theCSL’s average wages are just above the likes of the Ukrainian Premier League and Belgian Jupiler League (second tier but by no means minor leagues in Europe).

On top of this, the dominant Chinese side of recent years (Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande) have also cemented their place as Asia’s best club side as their expensively assembled squad claimed 2 of the last 3 Asian Champions League titles. And Guangzhou and the rest of the Chinese contingent are expected to go far in the 2016 edition too, despite the recent humblings of reigning champions Guangzhou andSven’s Shanghai SIPG to A League sides.

However, given the President’s lofty ambitions; clubs’ big spendingand the media attention of recent weeks, being the major player in Asian football is simply not good enough for the Super League: further growth is demanded & required if the CSL is to become a major fixture of the global footballing scene. Fortunately for the Super League, where it stands today with regards to the likes of attendances, growing TV money and a young, growing and increasingly wealthy population means that the CSL is perhaps in the better shape than any peripheral league in the world to make a real go at challenging the footballing status quo.

Perhaps the most impressive numbers (bar the huge, headline grabbing transfer figures) being put up by the Super League are found in the form of average attendances. Last season official figures (make of that what you will) show the Super League having an average attendance of 21, 892 fans per game (at least the number passes Benford’s law, thanksSoccernomics!). That figure puts the Super League on a par withFrance’s Ligue 1, the MLS and (perhaps most strikingly) level with where the Premier League stood after its 1992-93 inaugural season. Not a bad starting point at all, and the fact that these more than respectable attendances are growing rapidly too. Attendances rose 16.7% last year and growth at anywhere near that rate bodes very well for the domestic game, and could see the Super League stadiums(with an impressive average capacity north of 40,000) fill up rapidly.

Credit: China Daily

A main reason for China’s high and growing attendances being vital when assessing the prospects for growth in the league is because it is the Super League’s success in attracting fans domestically that gives it a real edge over other similarly cash-rich, growth-seeking leagues such as those in the Persian Gulf when it comes to growing the popularity and status of a league.

Having grown up in the UAE and frequently attended league matches in 40,000 seater grounds rarely filled above the 5000 mark (and this with free tickets), I feel that the sight of packed stadiums is crucial for any league in marketing itself to a global audience. On top of this, strong attendances also aid the CSL when it comes to attracting stars, a crucial (but by no means the only) part of the league’s growth strategy. All in all, it’s likely that strong attendances will put the Chinese Super League in a much better place than other similarly wealthy leagues when it comes to growing achieving international recognition and a global profile for the league.

Corruption, Cronyism & Hurdles to Growth

The likes of strong attendance figures, an increasing number of foreign stars and increasingly valuable TV rights might make the Super League appear strongly placed to become a major, world-renowned league on par with the major divisions in Europe. However, before we all start fearing the Chinese Super League usurping the major European leagues, attracting all world’s best players, and leaving the continent a footballing backwater, it must be noted that the league still has a long way to go both on and off the field if it is to match the prestige and workings of the European footballing operation.

Perhaps how far the Chinese league has to go can be best demonstrated by its numerous issues of corruption since the turn of the millennium (not that the rest of the footballing world is exactly in any position to be pointing fingers…).  In recent years the Chinese game has seen Shanghai Shenhua stripped of a league title for match fixing, and even two former national-league chiefs sentenced to over a decade in prison each. For those who want to know more about the extent of recent corruption in the Chinese game, it’s perhaps best summed up by Evan Osnos’ New Yorker piece “Playing Fake Ball”.

Credit: China Daily

The issue of corruption and a global perception of a football league potentially addled with bribery, cronyism and excessive state intervention could perhaps pose one of the biggest obstacles to the future popularity and regard of the Chinese Super League going forward. However, strong anti-corruption measures to change the“negative perception of the domestic game” have been taken in recent times; perhaps signalling the seriousness of the Super League’s bid to join the world’s elite.

Additional high profile evidence of the Super League still having a long way to go with regards to the professionalism of the operation can be found with the stories of Drogba & Anelka’s “unpaid wages” in Shanghai. As well as the much more recent scenes of Shenhua’s farcical management with regards to the foreign player quota seeingTim Cahill depart Shanghai to Hangzhou Greentown just a fewmonths after being given a new deal.

All in all, at least nowadays one can hope that with the global attention on the league; improved player wages (reducing incentives to accept bribes) and the President’s public association with the game, means that there is now more hope than ever for a systemic shift towards a more European, professional footballing operation. The right economic & political incentives are certainly in place for it.

The Super League: Looking Ahead…

All things considered, if any country has the potential to become a globally significant ‘major league’ (sorry MLS!) outside of Europe it’s the Chinese Super League.

For some of South America’s best, in the next decade or so it’s more than likely that the Super League will become both a genuine (and very lucrative) alternative to Europe for many of them. And the transfers of Everton Ribeiro, Dario Conca, Ricardo Goulart & Manuel Lanzini to Asia instead of/before Europe demonstrates the already existing scope for such moves.

Credit: FootballMarkettingMagazine

However, it’s still unlikely that the Super League will become much more than an increasingly popular pre-retirement stint amongst European players… And perhaps this shows an underlying truth that all the rich owner & state backed investment in the world cannot change easily or overnight. The allure of the European game has an intangible element that one struggles to put a price on.

The history, name, tradition and esteem surrounding the major sides in Europe means that their appeal to European footballers is perhaps more alluring than almost any signing-on fee paid in Renmimbi is, and as a result European footballers are likely to think twice before considering the Far East a genuine alternative to the European game.

So whilst the Chinese game does appear to have the willpower, funds and potential to become as large as any league on Earth, the remaining institutional shortcomings as well as the global game’s long-lasting, deep rooted Eurocentric power structure means that it could still be many years before we see the Chinese Super League matching the major sides in Europe both on and off the field.

Despite the hype-generating headlines in recent times, don’t expect to see the Guangzhou Evergrandes of the world outplaying the Champions League representative for the World Club Cub year on year, nor the exodus of all stars to the Far East rendering Europe a footballing backwater. In fact, it wouldn’t even be too great a surprise to see Alex Teixeira back in the Champions League in a few seasons’ time.

But I could well be wrong, and sudden Chinese world domination of football might be an inevitability that a European like me simply can’t see coming. Whatever the case, a young, exciting and growing league kicks off this weekend, and as we are still yet to see the launch of ‘Sky Sports 6: The Home of Chinese Football’ on British television, I’d recommend stomaching the weird time differences and finding yourself a stream.

By Tom Drissi


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