Whole new ball game

Wanda’s latest buy could help China host football’s World Cup

2014-15 Serie A Championship - Roma vs Parma

Seasonal greetings from Rome

From Japanese electronics giants to cash-rich state airlines from the Gulf: the shirt sponsorship deals of Europe’s leading football teams offer a potted history of the spread of global businesses. And while it isn’t unheard to see Chinese characters on the jerseys of famous clubs (see WiC59 for an early instance that bemused Liverpoll fans), AS Roma has taken the marketing effort to a new level.

Following the launch of the club’s official Sina Weibo account last week, Roma players took to the field wearing tops displaying four huge Chinese characters.

They read: “An early Chinese New Year Greeting”.

The publicity stunt wasn’t a great success, though – on the back of it Roma’s weibo account has generated less than 40,000 fans. Inter Milan, which got going on the weibo platform in 2010, has 10 times as many.

Some netizens did appreciate the gesture, although others couldn’t resist poking fun.

“This shirt is explosively stupid. Can’t they get someone with better understanding in the Chinese language?” one netizen complained, pointing to a minor blunder in phrasing that made the message slightly more comprehensible to Chinese-speakers from Guangdong province than the rest of the country.

“Ashley Cole [Roma’s English fullback] looks embarrassed,” another observed.

A third asked: “Is Roma looking for another Chinese investor?”

The last remark referred to earlier speculation that Wang Jianlin, the chairman of property conglomerate Dalian Wanda, was interested in buying into Roma. Wang then opted to invest in Atletico Madrid, a leading Spanish team (see WiC268).

Last week he splashed out on another footballing business, taking control of Infront Sports in a deal that values the Swiss-based sports marketing firm at $1.2 billion.

Infront partners with various global sports bodies. But its major draw is football, after it was awarded the exclusive rights to broadcast FIFA tournaments from 2015 to 2022, which include two World Cups.

Other clients of Infront are the governing bodies for world skiing, Italy’s top-tier Serie A league and the Chinese basketball league.

More importantly, as Tencent Sports noted, the deal puts Wang inside the personal network of the most powerful man in global football (at least, for now). Infront’s president and chief executive is Philippe Blatter, whose uncle Sepp Blatter is FIFA’s long-serving president.

Wang is claiming a patriotic motive for the investment in Infront. “President Xi has three wishes for Chinese football: to qualify for and host the World Cup finals, and eventually win it,” he told Beijing Youth Daily. “Infront’s strengths include football. Its capabilities and resources will move us closer and quicker towards these three dreams.”

Wanda said something similar about its investment in Atletico Madrid, with the agreement between tycoon and club placing a heavy emphasis on youth training for Chinese players.

Wang’s international approach has differentiated Wanda from the slew of property firms bankrolling the domestic football league.

“By working to realise President Xi’s football dreams, Wang Jianlin looks to have been playing a totally different ball game than the other property tycoons,” Tencent Sports said.

Meanwhile, Wang has been keen to reiterate the commercial logic of his investments in sport, which is part of his broader effort to expand his entertainment empire. (Wanda bought US movie-theatre chain AMC Entertainment in 2012 to complement its own film ambitions – Wang has built a ‘Chinese Hollywood’ in the city of Qingdao.)

“The sports industry accounts for 3% of the United States economy, which equates to [a market size of] $450 billion. In China the ratio is 0.6%, which is $48 billion,” Wang told Beijing Youth Daily.

“We invested in Infront because it is the country’s policy to promote the sport industry’s growth.”

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