A European affair

Why Chinese audiences are in love with the Euro 2012 soccer tournament

A European affair

Viva Espana: thanks to their silky skills, Spain have reached the final

Jiang Xiaoshan died in the early hours of June 19. Cause of death? Watching too much football.

According to the Sanxiang Metropolis newspaper the 26 year-old from Changsha had become obsessed with the Euro 2012 championship. In a football-watching marathon, Jiang had stayed up 11 consecutive nights to follow the games, televised live from Poland and the Ukraine.

But it all proved too much, especially as he had refused to sleep much during the day either. Jiang’s mother discovered him dead shortly after Italy’s 2-0 victory over Ireland. The newspaper said he had been in good health before the tournament, but that a fatal combination of sleep deprivation (the games were broadcast through the night in China), combined with smoking and drinking had weakened his immune system.

A doctor from a local hospital in Hunan province said Jiang had been sucked into an unhealthy lifestyle, and cautioned: “If you use beer to replace water that is not good.”

That’s probably not advice that Euro 2012 sponsor Carlsberg will want to dwell on much…

Nevertheless, Jiang’s passion for the tournament – although extreme – was anything but unusual. In fact, China’s media have been commenting on the high viewing figures for matches, in spite of the unsociable hours they are being broadcast at.

The Economic Observer even had a stab at explaining the phenomenon in a long feature article. It asks the sensible question: why is the European Football Championship so popular among Chinese, even though China (by definition) cannot be involved?

The suggestion is that much of the credit goes to Ma Guoli, formerly head of CCTV’s sports channel. In the early nineties Ma was struggling with low ratings and a budgetary deficit. But he knew that the state broadcaster had something valuable: a potentially huge audience. So in an effort to diversify programming away from coverage of badminton and weightlifting, he approached Italy’s Serie A about showing top-flight football games. A deal with Germany’s Bundesliga followed too. It cost CCTV $20,000 – the Economic Observer terms it as “almost free of charge” – but the quality of the football soon hooked Chinese audiences. Other deals with European leagues followed. It got to the point where a Chinese viewer could watch more European football for free than the average European fan.

This bred a greater familiarity with the ‘beautiful game’ (which China claims to have invented, see WiC8), as well as a love of Europe’s football stars.

Curiously, it has also led to a state of affairs where many Chinese see the European Football Championships as “even more wonderful” than the World Cup itself. Why so? EO explains that the only real difference in terms of quality at Euro 2012 is the absence of Argentina and Brazil, as most of the powerhouses of world football are European anyway. But better than the World Cup – which has 32 teams – is that the Euros offer a much more competitive tournament from the get-go. There are only 16 teams, which means top-flight fixtures start out in the group stages (in the World Cup you normally need to wait till midway through the tournament for the really high quality matches). This year’s European Championship featured games in the group stages like Germany v Portugal and Spain v Italy – and as the newspaper pointed out, these could both have been World Cup semi-finals.

Enthusiasm for the game is broad. China has been broadcasting NBA basketball for 25 years, but EO concludes that football is the “undisputed number one sport” in the country.

With huge potential audiences – and ad revenues – Chinese TV channels have also been vying to outdo each other in capturing viewer interest in the current tournament. Undoubtedly the winner here is Guangdong TV, which in an attempt to lure viewers away from CCTV’s more conventional coverage has been offering pre-match weather forecasts. That may sound a trifle dull until you hear that the forecasters are delivered by girls in bikinis. Such was the stir that an editorial by the People’s Daily criticised the broadcaster, saying that high ratings should depend on good content rather than partial nudity. The young ladies have changed into sportswear for the remainder of the tournament.

Chinese football fans also have something to get excited about closer to home. That’s after the announcement that superstar Didier Drogba has joined Shanghai Shenhua to play in the CSL (Chinese Super League). Drogba is the highest profile player to arrive in China, following in the footsteps of former Chelsea colleague Nicolas Anelka. Drogba – who scored the winner in this year’s European Champion’s League – will also become the league’s best-paid player, earning $314,000 a week, according to AFP.

“I hope to promote Chinese football around the world,” say the Ivory Coast player, “and to further improve the links between China and Africa.”

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