It is a measure of the star power of footballer David Beckham that a 2002 hit film used his name in its title. Piggybacking on the Englishman’s fame, Bend it like Beckham proved to be a worldwide success, launching the big screen career of Keira Knightley.
Such was the film’s appeal, in fact, that it even made it onto North Korean television in 2010: “the first Western-made film ever to air on TV in North Korea,” according to the British Ambassador to South Korea at the time.
But is ‘Brand Beckham’ now facing its greatest challenge yet? Later this month the 37 year-old footballer is scheduled to make a trip to China in his new capacity as an ambassador for the Chinese Super League (CSL). His mission: to raise the profile of the troubled soccer division.
As WiC reported in issue 183, the CSL has had its fair share of reputational issues in recent years, including the news last month that 33 more soccer officials were being banned from the game for life for match-rigging and illegal gambling.
The league did get an international boost last season when former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba joined Shanghai Shenhua. But it was only a brief fillip. Drogba quit the club last month, complaining that it had failed to pay his wages on time (see WiC181).
Nonetheless, the new CSL season started last Saturday with hopes that its more corrupt days are behind it, and that a new era of Pax Beckhamica is beckoning.
The footballing icon – currently warming the bench at PSG in France – is being paid Rmb20 million ($3.21 million) to bring his high-profile influence to bear on the CSL. In a deal negotiated by sports agent IMG, Beckham will appear in commercials and make personal appearances designed to boost the game’s profile in China and overseas.
“The cooperation is a win-win situation for the CSL, IMG and David Beckham himself,” celebrated Adam Zhu, president of IMG in China.
But not everyone is convinced by the Beckham move. A common complaint in the past is that the CSL would be better off spending its money on grassroots development of the game, rather than paying big cheques to foreign stars with little commitment to Chinese football. Better salaries for referees and officials might reduce some of the incentive to fix matches, too.
Yan Qiang, a local football pundit, told China News Agency that the CSL would only accrue a short term benefit from its new ambassador, adding: “How can Beckham – who does not even play in the CSL – speak for it?”
Southern Metropolis Daily thought it a strange ploy too, for similar reasons. It also noted that Chinese fans were surprised when Beckham didn’t even make an appearance for the opening game of the CSL season, dubbing him the “invisible spokesperson”.
Because Beckham’s contract with PSG runs for just five months, Shenzhen Special Zone Daily is speculating that his new role could be a stepping stone. It wondered whether the aging midfielder could then play out the remainder of his career in China. And it also thought there might be another reason for Beckham’s belated interest in the China market: the urgings of his wife, Victoria. Mrs Beckham has been active in the Chinese market previously, promoting a special edition of the Ranger Rover Evoque at the Beijing Auto Show (she helped design the interior calling it chic, cool and understated, and adding it’s “definitely me”: see WiC148). But the suggestion is that the former Spice Girl now wants to promote her eponymous clothing brand in China.
Whether or not the singer-turned-designer has a masterplan to conquer China, her husband’s appearance on the scene has already caused a stir in the apparel market. That’s because Beckham is sponsored by Adidas while the CSL’s main sponsor is rival sportswear firm Nike. The Wall Street Journal reports that alarmed Nike executives wrote immediately to the CSL protesting at the Beckham hire. In the letter – seen by the newspaper – Nike reminded the league of their agreement that competing brands should neither appear, be praised nor be promoted at official CSL events.
Nike, which evidently wasn’t consulted about the ambassadorial role, is worried that Beckham’s endorsement deals with others may contravene its own arrangements with the Chinese league.
Beijing Business Today has some sympathy for Nike’s complaint. The newspaper points out that Nike stepped in with a Rmb80 million deal when the CSL was sponsorless in 2006 and facing a “life or death commercial situation”. Since then it has continued to be a supportive partner. Selecting a spokesperson allied to its biggest rival is hardly a “kind way” to repay the US company, the newspaper thought, showing that “the CSL didn’t consider its sponsor’s feelings at all”.
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