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Cracking China


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Ambition is one thing, but it takes history to crack China


Chelsea eye up a billion online fans

Rivalry from Accrington Stanley


Millions of Chinese football fans turning on their computers this morning will discover that the welcoming face of Chelsea has a rather glum look. Ashley Cole was selected to send a greeting to fans on the club’s new Chinese language website, but his stern countenance was in stark contrast to the wide smile displayed by Peter Kenyon, the club’s chief executive, as he surveyed a golden future in the world’s biggest marketplace.

Kenyon was in Beijing yesterday to sign a deal that will put Chelsea on the biggest website in China and give tens of millions the chance to learn all about Cole, Frank Lampard and the rest of the stars at Stamford Bridge. The new website is one of the first tentative steps Chelsea are taking on the long march to world domination.


Within seven years, Kenyon wants the name of Chelsea to be first on the lips of fans when they think of football — even if they speak Mandarin. To dominate the world, though, Chelsea will need to become the most popular football club in a nation where the potential audience is measured in hundreds of millions.


The rewards could be huge: never mind the obvious merchandising of shirts, an instantly recognisable brand name can be applied to everything from mobile phones to credit cards, opening a rich seam of money-making opportunities among a population of 1.2 billion people. Little wonder then that Samsung, their shirt sponsor, and adidas, their kit sponsor, also have their names prominently displayed on the website, hoping that Chelsea fans in Shanghai and Beijing will soon walk to the shops in their adidas trainers to buy a Samsung television to watch their favourite team on the Chinese equivalent of Match of the Day.


But even using a host internet portal as powerful as sina.com — which boasts 40 million hits a day, three times more than its nearest competitor — Chelsea is facing an uphill task, according to Dr Simon Chadwick, an academic who has studied the popularity of English football in Asia.


He discovered that there is no substitute for history in the eyes of fans who appear to regard Chelsea as the upstart among more august company. Chelsea may be the English champions but they lag a long way behind in the Chinese popularity league.


“The difficulty for Chelsea is that there is so much brand equity in history,” Dr Chadwick, of Birkbeck College’s Sports Business Centre, said.


“Chelsea might be ambitious and have aspirations to be the world’s biggest club, but they are still the new kids on the block in global terms, a long way behind Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Chinese market particularly. Chelsea can sign big-name players and raise their profile, but history is built up over decades and they cannot create that.”


China has become football’s Klondike and even the smallest clubs have worked out that there is money to be made in a vast country that has relatively few indigenous football teams. While Kenyon shook hands on his deal yesterday, Accrington Stanley were quietly working on a new website (www.accringtonstanleyasia.com), designed to introduce the historic club to Asian fans.


The Coca-Cola League Two side’s ambitions know no bounds, with proposals for merchandising that could include the legend “The most famous little football club in the world” — in Chinese, of course. To cement relations across the globe, Accrington are playing Chengdu Blades tonight at the Fraser Eagle Stadium, which completes English football’s Chinese circle. The Blades are owned by Sheffield United, who took the ambitious approach of buying a club in China to ensure that their foothold in a marketplace rapidly becoming swamped with not only English football clubs but those from Europe and other sports.


It makes Chelsea the latecomers, which is why Kenyon may have to wait rather longer than 2014 to see his ambitions realised. Dr Chadwick added: “Football is often talked about as the most popular sport in China, but basketball is huge there and Formula One is attracting attention. Chelsea are not just competing against Manchester United or Real Madrid but against many other sports and brand names also looking for the same money.


“Peter Kenyon may have to wait a long time before Chelsea is the biggest name in sport in China because they have so much ground to make up. But they do seem to have a long-term strategy, unlike some other sports businesses — including big football clubs — that have used China for a smash-and-grab raid.


“It is a big job and Chelsea have a long way to go in China, which they have to conquer before they could call themselves the world’s biggest club.”


Mass appeal


The world’s biggest club? The English Premiership is the most-watched football in China, with 53 per cent of all football fans tuning in, compared with 45 per cent for China’s own league matches.

Chelsea claim to have 20 million fans worldwide; Manchester United have 20 million in China alone. A survey of 400 Asian fans by Birkbeck College discovered that 75 per cent claimed to be Manchester United supporters. They found just 13 Chelsea fans in the sample.

English clubs are racing to form partnerships with Chinese clubs: Newcastle United have an agreement with Dalian Shide, while Charlton have established a youth academy in Shanghai as part of a deal with Shanghai Zobon. Sheffield United remain the most ambitious, having paid £200,000 to acquire the Chengdu Blades.

Football is not the most popular sport in China, though. It is basketball, mainly because of the growing number of Chinese stars playing for NBA clubs in the USA, headed by Yao Ming, probably China’s biggest sporting star — not least because he is 7ft 5in tall


The Times

January 09, 2007

Kevin Eason



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