For those who are used to European football, the announcement that Shaanxi Renhe was leaving Xian for Guizhou came as a massive shock, well, hold on tight folks, we could be looking at more madness. In a winter of big transfers, it seems the biggest move may actually be clubs that are literally moving cities.
Unlike in the west, Chinese team ownership is similar to that across Asia, where a team is closely owned by a major company and an extension of said company. The story of Hengyuan begins in Shanghai in 2003, when the Hengyuan Corporation (a Shanghai real estate company) started a football team in that city. A year later, seeing an opportunity due to Nanchang Bayi’s (the army team) economic struggles and having failed to reach the 2nd division, Hengyuan attempted to buy that club. Their attempted purchase of the first team failed, but they ended up buying Bayi’s youth team and mixing it with their own club. Seeing an opportunity in Nanchang, which, with the dissolution of Bayi was without a team, Shanghai Hengyuan decided to relocate to Nanchang.
The club slowly experienced success, moving into the 2nd division in 2005 and then making it into the Chinese Super League in 2009, but since reaching the top flight have struggled both on and off the field. Nanchang have barely been able to remain in the top flight, staying above the drop by only two points and averaging just over 10,000 fans per match last season. Outside of their supporters being Jiangxi locals, the club’s front office, investors, coaching staff, and a number of its players are from Shanghai.
This isn’t the first year that the club was rumored to return to Shanghai, but these rumors are the most serious and persistent yet. The club, which has always been underfunded, is expecting to pay total salaries in the neighborhood of RMB100 million, which may sound like a lot but is really nothing considering rumors are that Shanghai’s most famous recent signing, Nicolas Anelka, is expected to make somewhere close to RMB88 million this year. Nanchang’s bosses in Shanghai have promised to invest an additional RMB50 million in the club, but only if the club returns to Shanghai.
The Chinese Super League schedule was released right after Chinese New Year, a surprise for many of us who are used to seeing it come out just weeks before the season started, however it has now disappeared from the web and word is that there may be some changes. Nanchang’s bosses are currently mulling over a return to Shanghai and looking for a venue, there are talks they could split grounds with Shanghai East Asia.
The proposed ground split brings up two points: 1. Shanghai already has a Chinese Super League team that previously struggled to draw fans, plus two China League clubs, where will Hengyuan get its fans from?, 2. The club was planning on moving from the rickety Bayi Stadium into the beautiful, brand new Jiangxi Olympic Center this year.
Why would Hengyuan want the club to move to Shanghai, especially at a time when Shenhua’s popularity is reaching an all-time high? The reality is that ticket sales amount for a tiny portion of a club’s finances and any loss in sales doesn’t concern the bosses who feel it’s more important that their team is in their local market. Further, they are potentially thinking that demand and prices for Shenhua season tickets will turn away fans and a second Chinese Super League team could attract them, as well as finally offering an alternative for all the Inter Shanghai holdouts who refuse to support Shenhua.
The Hengyuan squad is currently in Shanghai training for the upcoming season and a decision regarding a move is expected to come down this week. From a neutral’s perspective, the loss of a Nanchang side isn’t as unthinkable as Renhe leaving Xian and would create a third derby, but a second move this season would seriously affect fan’s trust in their management.
It would be a disaster for the league to have a handful of “old guard” franchises like Shandong, Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian (Shide), Changchun, Henan and Liaoning while the rest of the clubs changed cities or names every couple seasons. While such moves have little effect on the players, they kill the spirit of the fans and may have a deeper effect on the youth of a city deprived of a team. Let’s hope this move doesn’t happen, but in any case, it’s time for the Chinese Super League to step in and promote stability.