Captain of commerce

How David Beckham built his China business empire

David Beckham

Man of many characters: Beckham and his Confucian ink tattoo

In 2008 the former England football captain David Beckham got a new tattoo. “Death and life are determined by fate; rank and riches come from heaven”, it says in Chinese script.

Better than “Made in England”, you might say. In fact, the proverb is taken from Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to the ancient philosopher Confucius.

A smart move, perhaps, as Beckham’s riches flow increasingly from China today.  Three years after he retired from professional football, he’s the world’s second highest paid ‘former sportsperson’, making $75 million a year. The only former athlete to do better is the basketball player Michael Jordan, who earns $100 million. Beckham is catching up with the former Chicago Bulls star, and if he surpasses him it will largely be due to deals made in China. Some are simple endorsements, some involve equity, or joint ventures, and some aren’t clear.

By WiC’s count he has the most Chinese contracts of any non-Chinese celebrity. For example, Beckham is currently an ambassador for the country’s football league, a promoter for Shandong real estate developer Luneng, and a partner of China Auto Rental, the largest vehicle leasing company. He’s the face of Las Vegas Sands casinos in Asia too.

Brand Beckham has also partnered with drinks giant Diageo to create Haig Club, a new single-grain whisky which is being marketed heavily in China, and is working with Hong Kong’s Global Brands to create a company – Seven Global – which will roll out a whole series of Beckham-themed products.

Seven Global is half owned by Beckham and his manager Simon Fuller. It struck its first deal last autumn with Kent & Curwen, the British mens’ clothing label that started out in 1929, but today operates mostly in Greater China.

The brand said that Beckham would act as its designer, muse, model and ambassador.

Global Brands added that the former Manchester United midfielder would be releasing a new line of consumer products including sportswear, footwear and skincare, although Kent & Curwen would distribute Beckhams’ only apparel line.

So what is it about Beckham, now 40, that makes all these companies want to do business with him?

The answer is simply that he is one of the most well known, and most liked, foreign stars in China.

He was playing for Manchester United when British football became more popular in the country and unlike other foreign idols such as Brad Pitt he has never criticised the Chinese political system or human rights record. In fact, probably as a result of careful management, he has often been seen as being on China’s side, like last year when Beijing made its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. At the time locals were delighted that he praised the country’s passion for sports.

Indeed Beckham is so popular that a visit to a Shanghai university in 2013 sparked a stampede in which seven people were injured. Perhaps for that reason his most recent trip to Shanghai (last month) – to promote Haig Club – was kept under wraps until the last minute.

“I’d have flown there whatever the cost if I had known in advance,” one netizen protested on weibo. “Xiao Bei we love you so much,” wrote another, using Beckham’s Chinese nickname.

Not everyone is impressed. A slightly odd commentary titled ‘David Beckham should quit pandering to Shanghai tuhao [nouveau riche]’ in the Global Times compared the former LA Galaxy player to Bill Murray’s character Bob Harris in the 2003 hit movie Lost in Translation. “The parallels between Harris and Beckham – formerly a great footballer and role model to children across the world who, in recent years, sells himself out as an advertisement for anything that pays – are uncanny,” it said.

After Shanghai, Beckham flew to Hainan as part of his deal with the property firm Luneng. There he promoted a series of new villas and apartments – all of which sold out within hours.

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