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Cheng: How to build a CSL fan base & why teams don’t bother

On Saturday afternoon there will once again be a “green takeover” of Beijing Renhe’s Fengtai Stadium as Beijing Guoan fans descend en masse on their “cross town rivals” for the Beijing derby. Renhe, stuck in the shadows of a bigger, more established side, severely lack a fan base and if they are to stay in Beijing, they need to remedy that.

What’s true of Renhe is true of a number of other struggling sides in the CSL or even in League One, it doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize a few simple steps could be taken to improve things.

Revolutionary, right? Especially for a side like Renhe, playing second fiddle in a big city, advertising in subways, buses, etc. where it will be seen by millions of people on a daily basis is important to get the word out. K-League sides struggled with attendance in recent years, it it any surprise that in both Seoul and Jeonju, ads were in place for the local clubs? It doesn’t only help in getting your sides name out there, it also helps when it comes to “prestige”and standing out in the city.

Getting out in the community
There is nothing simpler than this and it costs the team nothing. Get players to visit local schools to do a short clinic with the kids, after all “school football” is an important program that Guoan has played a key role in. At the same time this would give the club a chance to see if any kids stand out. Events at malls in the area around Fengtai Stadium would be helpful to as well in promoting the team and building interest. Fengtai & Worker’s Stadium are separated by 25 kilometers and an hour’s journey across town, reaching out to fans in the area within a few kilometers of the stadium is a chance to win over people who are interested in football but don’t want to make the trip across the city.

Free Tickets
In connection with the above, when doing an event it would always be good to give away some tickets to get more people out to the stadium. This often gets looked down upon, but when you’re averaging only 12,000 people, whatever little bit helps. You don’t want to devalue things for the paying customers, but it makes for more excitement in the stadium, and it’s a chance to turn some of those who came on freebies into paying customers in the future. Or you offer family packages, where the kids get in free and adults can purchase discounted tickets. Every little bit can help and you never know who will become a “lifelong fan.”

Admittedly, this is a page out of the American sports book and isn’t something typically associated with the beautiful game. Back when the CSL’s predecessor, Jia-A, was just getting started with the assistance of mega-agency IMG, the title sponsor Marlboro gave away hats at matches and this was a huge draw (even now, I occasionally see older guys around the city in these hats). This is a relatively simple way to get more butts in seats and there’s a chance that it will get people to come back. The other thing is to do promotional events, like “Fengtai Appreciation Day”, where anyone with a Chinese ID from Fengtai District gets discounted entry, or “Africa Night” in honor of the three African foreigners in the side. Be ballsy and flaunt your reputation for moving around by doing a promotion for anyone from Guizhou or Xi’an.

New fan bases
And with the idea of African themed events, this is another option. Offer discounts or special packages to the embassies/chamber of commerces of these countries to promote to their communities. There is no reason why marketing needs to be staid, Guoan fans mock you for representing the “New Beijing”? Openly embrace it, find some KOIs in Beijing, in China you can’t throw a stone without hitting one, and it doesn’t need to cost a lot. It could just be people on live broadcasting apps like Tik Tok or Kwai with over 100k followers, get them involved in a contest to win free tickets for those who are from other parts of the country but living in Beijing. Do promotions targeting these people letting them know this is a team for everybody vs. Guoan which is “only for Beijingers.”

Guoan has a season ticket base of 25,000, adding up Renhe’s average attendance for their three seasons in the capital (admittedly two were in League One) doesn’t even reach that. Any of these moves (and certainly all together) would help them turn things around. The club isn’t stupid, this is all Marketing 101, so why aren’t they, or CSL sides in general, taking these steps?

Most of these steps require an initial output with no guaranteed return on investment for the club. Even with more people in the stands, there aren’t earnings to be had. After the real money makers at most stadiums are parking, food & beverage and souvenirs, all things that are lacking in the CSL. With that in mind, clubs are focused on the short term, they’d rather keep the limited earnings they currently have than spend towards an uncertain future and building a fan base.

Doing nothing gets you nothing and with Renhe (and other teams) not willing to take risks, they remain anonymous in their hometown, until they decide to move elsewhere or they fall apart.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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