Football: A conduit to China’s global leadership


April 29, 2019

Sport has long been a forum for measuring oneself, one’s community, one’s nation against all others.  Competitions provide social standing, community pride, and international recognition for the teams, their fans, and even their nations.  International games have become a moral and culturally acceptable confrontations that serve as proxies to open conflict; allowing nations to express the power and influence they wield without the death and destruction of combat. 

International sports also allows all nations a place on the world stage.  It requires far fewer resources to field a competitive team than it does to become a military or economic super-power.  Fielding a team at an international event can also serve as a coming-out party for nations seeking a position on the international stage.  International sport is intricately and deeply interwoven with international politics.

Looking back, the rebirth of the Olympic Games in 1896 brought together 241 athletes from 14 nations to compete in 43 events.  Compare that to 2016 when Rio hosted over 11,000 athletes representing 207 nations in 306 events. Clearly the enormous growth of international sport represents emerging opportunities for nations to showcase current and emerging power; similar to military parades and airshows. 

This summer some of the world’s premiere athletes will come together for a month in France to participate in an international competition of the world most popular sport.  I mean, of course, the FIFA Women’s World Cup.  Twenty-four teams of the world’s best will compete for the championship.  Several nations will look to reinforce their leadership in sport and on the international stage; others will seek to improve their position in global economics and politics. Foremost among the latter group is China.

China sees international sport as part of the foundation of its ascent in international politics and as a global power; and football, with more than 3.5 billion fans worldwide, represents the largest stage to showcase its power.  China has been a player in FIFA women’s football since the beginning.  In 1991 they hosted the inaugural tournament and finished in the top 8, in 1995 they placed 4th, and lost the title to the USA only by penalty shoot-out in 1999.  After a period of transition, China is again making strong strides toward dominance; reaching the quarter-finals in 2015.

China understands that football is an entrant to the global stage and the global marketplace.  Investments in football raise China’s global presence and position it to assume the mantle of global leadership it has long sought.  As western democracies stagnate, emerging economies look for new leaders.  China sees its destiny as filling that void, and it has invested in that role.

China’s Wanda Group (#380 on Fortune Global 500) has invested heavily both within China and internationally in football.  Beginning in 2013, Wanda created “China’s Future Football Stars” project to send 30 Chinese athletes per year to Spain for a three-year training program.  In 2015, they purchased a 20% stake of Atletico Madrid for $41m (sold in 2018), as well as, Infront Sports & Media, and their exclusive sales rights for FIFA broadcasts through 2022, for $1.2b.  A move Wanda’s chairman said was, “to help boost sports in China and increase Wanda’s influence in global sports” (WSJ, 2015)

Hebei China Fortune FC Training Center

.  In 2016, Wanda signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA through 2030, making Wanda the first Chinese 1st-teir FIFA sponsor as well as obtaining naming rights for Atletico, Madrid’s new stadium.

Wanda is not alone.  The Suning Group acquired a 70% stake in Inter Milan in 2016 for $282m.  China has also been on a talent buying spree, spending hundreds of millions to transfer top global talent, like Hulk, Oscar and Alex Teixeira to Chinese Super League teams (Bloomberg, 2017). 

Much of China’s interest in international sport can be traced back to the 2014 China State Council Document No 46.  This plan spells out the future of sport in China; including its economics.  By 2020, sport will be a $432b industry in China, representing a full one percent of their GDP.  Also, Chinese consumer spending on sport will pass 2.5% of disposable income per capita by then.  Lastly, sport has many cross economic impacts, including tourism, social networking, culture, medicine and education.  In the first four months of 2016, an estimated 3.4 million Chinese participated in 311 sport related events and generated $1.7 in ancillary spending related to participating (China Daily).

China sees sport, and particularly football, as a cornerstone in their rise as a global leader.  They intend to ensure they have a leadership role in shaping the future of football, global sport, and international economics.  Western democracies need to understand the patience, resolve and resources China brings to bear in its resolve to be the next global leader.  We are not yet at the point of asking “for whom the bell tolls”, but the warning light is flashing; best we not ignore it.

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