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Playing the Market

Owen Evans asked Jeff Slack, former IMG senior vice-president of football, for a sports marketer’s perspective on working in China and whether the David Beckham factor kick-started football in the country.

At an end-of-season awards ceremony for the Chinese Super League four years ago, the star prize in the evening went to an anti-corruption policeman instead of a footballer.

Not a dream landscape for a sports marketer to walk into, but that was the remit for Jeff Slack, IMG’s former senior vice president of football, when he had a task to turn round the fortunes of the Chinese Super League following years of corruption which led to China’s football association banning 33 players and officials for life after a three-year probe into match-fixing.

At a government level, the clean-up process had begun with plans to install a 10-year reform programme, but in the meantime IMG was bought in to commercialise the country’s top-flight football league. As one industry insider, who has operated a consultancy in China for the past five years, told SportBusiness International: “The Chinese Super League at the time was a shambles in terms of their original structure, and there were huge image problems following the match-fixing scandal of 2009”.

The solution as far as Slack was concerned was to sacrifice short-term cost for the sake of bringing in big brands – and big brand
ambassadors – in order to show the rest of the industry that the image problem was dealt with.

“We had to come up with a credible commercial programme, so the first brand we bought in was Carlsberg [in April 2013] who obviously had a great football heritage,” said Slack. “We gave them a better deal than we should have really, as we really wanted to get them in for their credibility.

“The other thing we did was obviously bring in David Beckham as an ambassador for football around the same time, and he was spectacular when he came over on a few trips for us. “All of that meant we went in the space of about 15 months from having a programme with no sponsors to annual turnover of over $50m.”

Broken down to its constituent parts, the role for Beckham involved a few week long trips that appeared from the outside to be easy money for the former Manchester United star, but proved to be fundamental for Slack’s attempt to enforce a rapid brand revamp to attract new sponsors.

“The Beckham project was brilliant from a sponsorship perspective as we needed to change the image of the league, and no-one could do that so quickly as David Beckham,” he added.

In the space of about 15 months we went from having a league programme with no sponsors to annual turnover of over $50m

Looking Forward

The sponsorship landscape has changed dramatically in Chinese football, but there is a ceiling as far as Slack is concerned, due to one key reason.

“Look China has one or two issues, in the history of corruption and the source of where the money comes from in some cases, and these are not things that will be solved overnight. “The main thing holding back Chinese football
is the national team’s lack of success. The moment they get any kind of success it is just going to explode as football is one of the most popular sports in the country.

While the national team will take time to make a name for itself on the global stage, major Chinese brands have already made their mark outside of the country, with Huawei the most active. Having started to sponsor European teams in 2011, the telco now has partnerships with at least 11 teams around the world. But Slack’s attention is on what is coming in rather than what is going out, and the challenges that lay in wait for foreign brands trying to crack China through football.

“One of the main challenges you face as a sponsor coming into the market is that due to the
way the media market is set up with the dominance of CCTV (see page 38) they simply do not pay revenues you get elsewhere in football.

“If you are a brand you have to get in with CCTV, not because they pay a lot of money but because they get you into 800 million households.”

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