We saw the government falling over itself to welcome Chinese president Xi Jinping for his state visit in October, with the red carpet rolled out and a plethora of platitudes from both sides. Now it looks as if the football club Xi toured for part of his visit is hoping to one-up rivals by making inroads into the highly valued Chinese market.
Manchester City trumped fierce rivals Manchester United after securing a visit from the Chinese president – despite the fact he’s a lifelong United fan. Accompanied by David Cameron, the president received VIP treatment for his trip to the Etihad stadium, which reportedly came about thanks to the successful lobbying efforts of Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese (who just happens to be an avid City supporter).
That may have all been in good fun, but the announcement of a partnership between City's parent company, City Football Group (CFG) and a consortium of institutional investors, led by CMC (China Media Capital), shows the club's intent to expand its global reach. CFG has been valued at $3bn (£2bn) after selling a 13% stake worth £265m to the consortium. The tie-up follows six months of talks, as CFG looks to branch out even more internationally, with the Chinese football industry a prime target.
CFG will use the capital from the deal to fund its growth in China and other international opportunities. The main draw for Manchester City – as well as the other clubs in the group, including New York City and Melbourne City – will be the chance to cultivate a fan base in east Asia. There is already intense competition between many of the top clubs in Europe (as well as further afield) to broaden their supporter bases in the region.
‘Football is the most loved, played and watched sport in the world and in China, the exponential growth pathway for the game is both unique and hugely exciting,' said Khaldoon Al Mubarak, CFG’s chairman. 'We have therefore worked hard to find the right partners and to create the right deal structure to leverage the incredible potential that exists in China, both for CFG and for football at large.’
This summer, European heavyweights Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Internazionale all toured China in the hope of raising their respective profiles. Numerous football clubs have also focused on improving their online marketing to get fans on board. But language has been a significant barrier in the past for teams hoping to engage with Chinese fans through English-language websites and internet restrictions also meant Chinese fans have found it more difficult to follow teams on western social media sites.
Since Liverpool launched an official presence on Chinese social media in 2011, more than 30 clubs have tried to capitalise on the opportunities arising from using popular sites such as Weibo.
This latest move though, will also be a chance for China to realise its ambitions to become a global force in football and strengthen its domestic leagues. Ruigang Li said, ‘We see unprecedented growth opportunities in both its [football’s] development as an industry, being China’s most watched sport, and its inspirational role bringing people of all ages together.’