Soccer teams avoid China – but should fans care?

Maybe things will be different next summer, but pre-season tours of China by European soccer teams appear to be a thing of the past. This week’s Sports Talk column, posted below, explains why, though when English Premier League teams are touring Costa Rica but not China, it’s obvious the business model here is broken. It would be interesting to see how many fans would turn up if a – gasp! – regular season EPL game was played in China; if the NFL, with its far shorter season, can do it, then why can’t the EPL? I suspect it would be a full house, but ticket prices might be an issue, as I discuss below.

Fans of Manchester United cheers during a promotional event in China's southern city of GuangzhouBut the EPL’s real problem in China stems from the lack of a broadcast deal with China’s national broadcaster CCTV. Long gone are the days when up to a billion people reportedly tuned in to watch Sun Jihai’s Manchester City take on Li Tie’s Everton. In the battle of the egos, where the EPL thinks CCTV should pay comparable rates to the rest of the world and CCTV thinks the EPL should pay for the privilege of broadcasting their product, a stalemate is quickly reached and both sides lose out.

Asia is the hottest destination for English Premier League clubs this summer, but the Chinese mainland has been left off the list. Soccer fans in Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia have the chance to see one or more of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United play over the holiday period. Four clubs, including Manchester City and Tottenham, are also visiting Hong Kong, but not one of them is venturing further north.

It might seem that European clubs are missing a trick by avoiding the world’s biggest market and a country with a huge number of passionate soccer fans. But the truth is that, for now at least, the numbers just don’t add up.

Preseason tours are advertized with marketing guff like “expanding the global brand” and “giving back to the fans”, but in reality they are about two things: fitness and money. These teams demand millions to play overseas, and promoters are all too happy to pay upfront if they know that more than 80,000 fans will be paying top dollar to see them, as happened when Manchester United played in Sydney on Saturday.

Attendance in the Chinese Super League, China’s main domestic soccer competition, is healthy, but ticket prices are way below what foreign teams charge back home. That leaves Chinese promoters with a stark choice when these teams comes to town: raise ticket prices or fill the stadium, but they can’t do both. Either way, it doesn’t cover the costs needed to bring the visitors there in the first place.

The problems are not just limited to English teams. Barcelona announced earlier this year it would be playing a game in Shanghai in August, but later cancelled those plans, while the Italian Super Cup match between Lazio and Juventus will now be played in Rome rather than in Beijing.

The only solution would be for teams to play in China for a reduced appearance fee. After all, exposure to the Chinese market would surely mean increased income in merchandise sales, right? In reality, though, the ubiquitous presence of fake jerseys flooding the Chinese market means clubs are no before off than they were before.

In some ways, it’s a blessing. Across the continent, soccer fans are paying through the nose to see a collection of reserves, juniors and the odd star player perform little more than a training session. It turns out China is not really losing out at all.

A question to end: was I the only to be irritated at all the “David Moyes’ Manchester United era starts with loss” headlines after Man Utd lost 1-0 to a team of Thai All Stars in Bangkok recently in what can only be described as the friendliest of friendlies? Anyone connected with the club knows that the record books only start counting next month, when there is actually something on the line. To pretend otherwise is as ingenious as including 10 Mickey Mouse Charity/Community Shields (one of which they didn’t even win) in Sir Alex Ferguson’s list of “38” trophies.

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