FC Barcelona, the club who plays the most beautiful football in the world, is building its success in China, and they’re approaching the market in a way that no other club has done before.
Last month, Sandro Rosell, Barça’s new president, was traveling in China with his colleagues. Unlike other visits by European giants, their trip was not about friendly games or cooperation with local clubs, but laying down guanxi with Chinese politicians and clinching a business deal with a giant Internet firm.
Few other clubs are following Barça’s route, namely trying work with the Chinese government directly rather than with local clubs, in an attempt to reach out to Chinese fans like they own them.
Their fierce rival, Real Madrid, is currently the only club planning to provide help a local club in establishing a football academy. Amongst all the elite sides, only Liverpool FC is officially engaging fans on Chinese micro-blogging platform on their own, a strategy which only began this July – most European club’s social networking presences are unofficial and run by Chinese media and fan groups.
During his stay, Mr.Rosell met the heads of the Ministry of Education in Beijing, and municipal officials in Shanghai, who are seeking help in developing local football structures.
The highlight of their China visit saw the Barça delegation spent a night at a fundraiser hosted by the China Foundation for Disabled Persons, which is run under the leadership of Deng Pufang, the first son of Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader and avid football fan. Liu Yandong, China’s State Councilor and the only female Politburo member, serves as an honorary director of the foundation.
But there’s something more than just fundraising going on here, as Ms.Liu is has played a key role in the recent reshuffling of Chinese football and on several occasions has declared her interest in building up the football structure from grassroots-level through education. The Chinese authorities may be looking towards emulating Barca’s La Masia model, the club’s famed football academy.
Xi Jinping is touted by many to be China’s next leader and declared in 2009 that he hoped to see a total turnaround in Chinese football. Since then, Liu assumed the governing role in the State Council’s ‘football investigation and research group’ to solve the puzzle of Chinese football.
But since then, football has suffered further calamity in China. This June, the Chinese national men’s U-23 team failed to get a ticket to the London Olympics and, as if that was not enough, the national team was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup in October.
Unfortunately, Chinese football’s enduring misfortune at national level is very likely to continue for the foreseeable future. According to the Chinese Football Association, the are only about 3,000 registered players nationwide under the age of 19. The number of football academies has been dwindling. Liaoning province, once a football powerhouse that had 21 academies ten years ago, now has none.
“If we have to do something with China, it’s better to do with the authorities,” said Laurent Colette, Barça’s chief marketing officer, in their meeting with the heads of Ministry of Education, adding it’s possible that the clubs may open academies in China, like they did in Japan and Korea.
“I think it’s a positive message coming from the central government,” said Xia Haifeng, chairman of Inter Sports, a state-owned firm founded by the Beijing government, and the very same company who arranged Barça’s China visit. “It’s good to talk about education rather than gold medals.”
Inter Sports was founded in 2005 with the purpose of “importing major International competitions to the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and ‘Water Cube’”, architectural emblems of the Beijing Olympics invested by the Beijing government.
“When you talk with Inter Sports, you talk with authorities in Beijing and Shanghai. For us it’s perfect,” said Laurent.
Barça’s revenue last year hit 460 million euros, of which only less than one percent come from the Chinese market, despite the country accounting for 30 percent of all its fans worldwide, according to the club’s own market research data.
These 30 percent are nowhere to be found on Facebook or Twitter, as the two social-networking services are still blocked by the Chinese authorities.
But fans here have their own ways to follow their football heroes. On Tencent Weibo, a popular micro-blogging platform, Lionel Messi has over 14 million followers, seven times the size of Barça’s official account on Twitter.
The club signed an agreement with Tencent, which makes available the company’s 900 million QQ users within reach, a deal that was “very satisfied” by Didac Lee, Barça’s director of new technology, who noted that the club plans to sell smart-phone apps to its Chinese fans in the future, a move that no other club has ventured towards.
“The Internet is the best way for us to be in China 24-7. Summer tours make a lot of money for a few days, but it’s not the best way to make loyal supporters,” said Didac.
“It’s like working out in a gym here,” Laurent stretches his arms. “First you open your arms to expand your fan base, to be sure that you reach all the possible fans here through TV, Internet, press and so on. Then the next step is to monetize, which is to create a financial link to transfer your fans into business.”
“It’s Barça 2.0 in China now”, said Xia Haifeng, who arranged the club’s friendly game in China last year in the ‘Bird’s Nest’. “Football fans here take a lot less interest in friendlies than they did before.”
“We did that in the past and don’t like that,” said Laurent. “Summer tours should be only a part of what we do here. We’ll reach the fans by 360 degree marketing to make sure this snowballing effect cast the football followers with contact and information about us, and little by little they have more reasons to become our fans.”
“Our plan in China is not come in, take the money and run,” said Mr.Rosell to TV3, a Catalan broadcaster. “It’s, first of all, to know what and how we can offer to fans, and make as many Barça supporters as possible. In the long-term, our goal is to monetize those supporters.”
Just like the way they behave in the transfer market, the Catalans are clear about what they should do and adopt a patient approach.
“We’re not going to get crazy about China,” said Xavier Faus, the club’s vice president, when speaking about the broadcasting time in La Liga, as the team usually plays in the early morning around 3am in Beijing time. “We cannot, in order to gain 1m euro here, lose 5m in our own market.”
Barça plans to have its first summer camp next summer in Beijing, but they may not be able to offer remedy for the malaise in Chinese soccer that the government is looking for.
“We’re not here to solve the Chinese problem,” confessed Laurent. “Many people told us the Chinese results are bad. I’m French and French results are bad as well. Don’t worry, everything goes in cycles.”
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