Shanghai. A Chinese conglomerate’s takeover of Infront, the sports marketing company, may well help the People’s Republic of China to a successful bid for the World Cup. The new majority owner is confident of finding favour amongst the country’s political powers.
A Chinese bid to host the football World Cup can only be a question of time. Firstly, because the ruling Communist Party sees major sporting events as a marketing instrument to foster the nation’s image. Secondly, the country has already proved that it can successfully stage major events like Olympic Summer Games. The then host city, Beijing, is even in the running to hold the 2022 Winter Games. However, the state president Xi Jinping himself has made it clear that the holding of the World Cup on home soil is something very dear to his heart.
As economic success in China is closely interrelated to political goodwill coming from the party, opportunists in the country listen very carefully when the head of state expresses his wishes. In taking over the Swiss sports marketing company Infront, Sports and Media, businessman Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of the Chinese conglomerate Wanda, has for example taken possession of the ball set rolling when the state president expressed his World Cup wish. Wang acquired a 68 per cent stake in the sports marketing company after paying 1.2 billion euro. The deal was officially announced at a ceremony which included the signing of the contract in Beijing on 10 February. It is a small but important step for the Chinese on the road to a future World Cup bid.
“Infront will put China a bit closer to the world football’s power base. It will develop sports marketing in the country and can supply the experience that, at some stage, could well be very helpful when a bid is made,” said Liu Xiaoxin, the editor in chief of Zuqiu Bao, a Chinese football magazine, when speaking to Conti Soccerworld.
By acquiring the rights agency, businessman Wang has bridged the Chinese football association and the world federation FIFA. “China is currently far from hosting a World Cup but the partnership with Infront can speed up a successful bid,” believes Wang. It’s also what the head of state expects.
The logic behind the deal is as follows: the Wanda conglomerate is hoping for a new source of income – it for example includes revenues from the German cup competition and the German national team’s matches. As a key enabler for realising presidential dreams, the company chairman at the same time will enjoy greater goodwill amongst the nation’s political elite. Just how important the acquisition of Infront is, is shown by the hefty price paid. In gaining the majority, Wang paid double the amount the previous owner once invested. The size of the profit will only basically play a secondary role.
Recently the billionaire was in the news for buying a stake in the Spanish league champions Atletico Madrid. The real estate mogul paid 45 million for 20 per cent of the shares at last year’s Champions League runner-up. “Wang is well aware that the real estate boom in China is over. But football is a growth sector,” said journalist Liu. International football is highly popular amongst Chinese fans. The top European leagues and in particular the World Cup attract lots of television viewers. And the Bundesliga has many fans in the country, but is lagging well behind the English Premier League.
Wand’s excellent contacts in the People’s Republic will be an important door opener for Infront in its efforts to market other sports properly in China. The Chinese are big sports lovers.
They have caught the basketball and tennis bug especially after the international success of compatriots like Yao Ming or Li Na. With the right know-how provided by Infront, Wanda boss Wang is hoping for lucrative marketing deals.
He also believes he is capable of improving the quality of Chinese football. Infront could offer channels to pave the way for talented Chinese players to move to Europe. However marketing is only the second step before the first. China’s football is suffering from structural weaknesses in the academy system. Journalist Liu, who has published a book about corruption in Chinese, sees at best a small chance for improvements as a result of the Infront deal. “The whole system has to be radically changed,” he said.