Spectators at the 2006 FIFA World Cup must have been bemused by the Chinese characters sideline during the quarterfinal match-up between hosts Germany and Argentina. But to millions of television viewers in mainland China those characters said "drink Budweiser".
This scene confirmed the emergence of the Chinese consumer as a force in world sport. In China itself, domestic and global brands also jumped on the World Cup bandwagon.
China Central Television (CCTV), which had sole broadcasting rights, raked in over US$125 million in advertising revenues over the tournament, dwarfing the US$57 million netted in 2002 and US$12.5 million in 1998. Revenues at internet portal Sina.com climbed 35% for the period.
"Sport is quite possibly the most powerful marketing tool there is," said Mark Thomas, managing director of China-based sport marketing group S2M.
And it may be more powerful in China than elsewhere, at least according to a Global Market Insite survey that found only 12.5% of Chinese fans were unable to name a single World Cup sponsor, compared to 54% of British fans.
This is more remarkable considering China's national team did not make the tournament, indicating viewers bought into the global nature of the event rather than the sport itself. The prevalence of empty stadiums at mainland sporting events from domestic football to international motorsports entrenches this suspicion.
US car manufacturer GM experienced the difficulties first hand when it sponsored Australia's V8 Supercars series in Shanghai last year. Following mismanagement and poor attendance, the event is not slated to return.
Dale Sullivan, former Chevrolet brand director at GM China, said the venture was a success while it lasted but admits finding the right sponsorship is a problem.
"If you ask people what they do on the weekend, they don't go to a sports event," he said. For the time being, GM is looking for community sponsorships instead.
Charities not championships
ANZ Bank is taking a similar position. Although the bank recently backed the Shanghai Sixes cricket tournament, China president Jock McGregor said ANZ prefers to back community events and charities.
"I am yet to be convinced by a sport marketer or promoter of anything worth buying [in China]," he said.
"A few years ago we looked at doing stuff with tennis. It didn't seem to work that well and we had a lot of difficulty trying to get our customers to go along. It was the same story with the grand prix. There wasn't a lot of interest from our Chinese client base."
But things have changed since those early days, said Charles Humphrey Smith, managing director of Ten Events Asia, the company behind the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai in November.
"In China, business entertaining is very cultural," he said. "Sport is new to that equation. It's a recent phenomenon and it is proving to be very successful."
Sponsorship packages at the Masters Cup, which started at US$500,000, disappeared quickly and two thirds of US$30,000 courtside boxes went to local companies, he said.
Strolling the fairways
Giles Morgan, head of sports sponsorship and marketing at HSBC, the principal sponsors of the HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai, has also observed a sea change.
"While there are Chinese customers out there who prefer going out to dinners rather than engaging in sports, we are finding there is an increasing number of customers who also enjoy a day at the golf course."
The Tennis Masters and the HSBC Champions golf are the most recent of a number of global properties turning their attention to China. Shanghai has developed an international motor sports stable including the Formula One Grand Prix and the Moto GP World Championship.
The NBA has established a strong following in China, largely thanks to superstar Yao Ming. America's Major League Baseball has also made an appearance and the National Football League has announced an exhibition game for next year.
The European PGA has developed some joint golf tournaments with the Asian PGA and the USPGA is now keen to follow.
These events will, of course, be dwarfed by the Summer Olympics in Beijing 2008.
China Sport's Industry International says the domestic sport industry is worth US$15.5 billion, including television rights, stadiums, sponsorships, representation, merchandise, events and equipment.
"Are there sponsorships out there?" asked GM's Sullivan.
"Oh yeah, it's just like everywhere else. If you can get in on the ground floor of the right sport at the right time, that's going to be where you'll be looking to make your return in the future."
Potential sponsors need to look no further than the Tennis Masters to see what can be achieved. When Smith first brought international tennis to China in 1998, the only way to fill the 4,000 capacity Pudong stadium for the Heineken Open was to bus in students from the local university. Less than a decade later, the much larger 15,000 seat Qi Zhong stadium fills itself.
"That," said Smith, "is what gets the sponsors excited."
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