China’s Long Road To Sporting Glory

The Asian Century is upon us – and Australia, as the reigning Asian Cup champion, is right in the thick of it. But where to now for sport in Asia – and specifically, the world’s fastest growing economy, China? TPA’s Dave Edwards takes a closer look at the future of football – and sport in general – for the Red Dragon of the East.

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As you may or may not have heard, China is a big deal now. To put it in laymen’s terms, the nation is experiencing a serious economic boom as it continues its shift towards a market-based economy.

But you’re reading The Public Apology, not The Economist. Which is why we’re not here to talk about China’s economic outlook, but its burgeoning interest in what one could historically describe as Western sports.

Until recently, the sports most popular in North Asia would be, in no particular order: badminton, table tennis, baseball, basketball, volleyball, football, and maybe gymnastics.

Of course, this differs from country to country. Korea, for example, takes particular interest in women’s golf, given their success. Taiwan is borderline-obsessed with baseball, which first grew in popularity dating back to when the island was ruled by Japan in the early 20th Century.

Japan, of course, likes baseball too. They used to take greater interest in Formula One, but this is on the wane somewhat. In fact, Asia’s highest ranked footballing nation is quite insular when it comes to sport. Aside from the J-League and their local baseball league, they seemingly care little about what’s happening in Europe or elsewhere.

LPGA golf is a big deal in Korea
LPGA golf is a big deal in Korea

Then there’s China. China, like many other Asian countries, takes an interest in ‘Western’ sports when their countrymen are performing. Exhibit A: Yao Ming’s success in the NBA gave basketball a huge boost in China; however, since then, the interest has tapered off somewhat.

China’s performance in the Asian cup – where they reached the quarter-finals before being bundled out by hosts Australia – caused a stir back home. Thousands of Chinese hopped on flights to Australia eager to see their team progress. It stirred nationalistic pride – something the Chinese are great at – and caused many to dream big.

Unfortunately, they simply weren’t good enough. For a country of 1.35 billion people, they have scarcely tapped their potential on the international stage.

Much of this, of course, is to do with systemic corruption within the local Chinese Super League. Many allege that players in the past have accepted bribes and match-fixing offers due to low salaries, while question marks hang over the CFA’s reluctance to investigate and punish local government officials for their role in facilitating such outcomes.

The CFA recently appointed a Chinese-Canadian to run their referees division. It is hoped that he will help establish an international-level refereeing training system and bring some integrity and professionalism back to the competition.

Hopefully less of this under the new bloke
Hopefully less of this under the new bloke

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China’s communist history has not helped its sport.

In 2000, China’s top media regulator ruled that only its government broadcaster, CCTV, had the right to negotiate and buy major broadcasting rights, with local broadcasters forced to talk with CCTV in regards to re-distribution. However, this archaic rule was lifted last year, which has subsequently opened up a more competitive broadcast sector.

Super Sports Media, a privately owned Chinese media company, sold the EPL rights to LeTV and PPTV – located in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively – for some $11 million each. LeTV and internet portal rivals Tencent and Sina are set to battle it out for the online NBA rights, worth an estimated $100 million. These are just a few examples of Chinese companies bidding against each other for live rights.

The net result? More Chinese eyeballs focused on international sporting competitions. More interest in sport. Better performances at sport.

Put simply, China is discovering sports online. Web portals in China are big money; these private companies are shelling out plenty of cash as they venture into live sports rights. The appetite for content in China is growing; the sleeping dragon, finally, has risen.

With this quality subscriber-based sports coverage, sport in China will grow. The EPL is a market leader in terms of its match day coverage, commentary, insight and video production. Chinese audiences will see, finally, what sport really can be. 

A snapshot of the Chinese TV landscape
A snapshot of the Chinese TV landscape

In Australia, the US, and many other Western countries, we demand nothing but the best from our sports broadcasters. When they fall short, we pipe up. Sport is a product, and as such, it must be packaged carefully in order to appeal to consumers.

China is only just getting a taste of this rebranded product – and many are betting that sales will take off as a result.

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China is cashed up at the moment and they’re not afraid to spend big on international players. Australia’s own Tomi Juric and Tim Cahill have recently been offered big money deals with CFA teams, with Cahill accepting the offer this week.

Interestingly, the 23-year-old Juric declined his own $10 million offer, saying it was “not the right time.” This is basically his way of saying “the Chinese league is not strong enough and could in fact curtail my promising career.”

With all this new money, will China look to invest in its footballing future in order to grow new talent (which is surely there), or will it squander the opportunity by focusing on foreign players instead?

The appetite is there in China. Like all Asian countries, the Chinese just want something to get behind. But throwing money at overseas players – at the expense of developing local talent – could potentially hinder the nation’s growth.

Chinese audiences have been waiting for this
Chinese audiences have been waiting for this

The A-League is a good example, albeit on a much smaller scale, of a competition that has matured in the space of a few short years. The early A-League days saw teams competing to land that marquee players in order to boost attendances, swell jersey sales, and get that extra on-field edge.

Now, with that short-term policy done away for the most part, the competition is producing a raft of home-grown talent, whom are now in hot demand all over the world in some of Europe and Asia’s biggest leagues.

Imagine if China can replicate this model in a few years time. Imagine the positive benefits that a strong China will have for world football. Imagine Australia playing China in a World Cup quarter-final in 2022, in searing Qatari heat with everything on the line.

Of course, young Chinese footballers will benefit from having a Cahill-type upfront, or a John Terry at the back – simply for their years of experience at the top level. Cahill spoke of his desire to grow football in the US when he joined the New York Red Bulls, and doubtless he will have the same vague aspirations at his new club, Shanghai Shenhua (a club which also recently acquired Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka).

Zhu Jun, Shanghai Shenhua's 'mercurial' owner
Zhu Jun, Shanghai Shenhua’s ‘mercurial’ owner

Cahill and other international players will help the CFA in the short term. It’s the del Piero effect but for a different audience. Cahill’s voice may help highlight the shortcomings of the domestic competition to an international audience, and greater spotlight will be put on the CFA to get its act together. These are all good things.

However, China’s team owners must not settle for publicity-seeking signings ahead of proper grassroots development. Indeed, Shanghai Shenhua’s owner, internet mogul Zhu Jun, has all the hallmarks of a crazy, cashed up owner: he once fielded himself upfront alongside Anelka in a friendly game. This, while hilarious, is probably not a good sign for the long-term health of the club.

Simply due to economy of scale, China’s football progress could be swift, immense and take us all by surprise. As always, we will wait to see whether the investments are prudent and vision-focused, or simply frittered away.

By Dave Edwards

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