China Digest | Alibaba Cloud links up with Fifa Club World Cup

Weekly round-up of sports business news from the Chinese sports industry.

Alibaba Cloud links up with Fifa Club World Cup

The upcoming Fifa Club World Cup, to be held in the UAE from December 6-16, will have a new presenting partner after the Alibaba Group’s cloud division, Alibaba Cloud, replaced Alibaba E-Auto as the title sponsor.

It’s a continuation of Alibaba’s eight-year deal with Fifa – not a new deal, as has been reported elsewhere – and will run until 2022. As part of the agreement, Alibaba Cloud will design and present the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.

Separately, Fox Sports has acquired rights in Italy for this year’s competition, while China-based StarTimes, which broadcasts in sub-Saharan Africa, has extended its deal for the annual football tournament. While Fifa is reportedly short of sponsors for the World Cup, Alibaba is one of a number of Chinese companies currently sponsoring the global sports body, alongside Wanda, Hisense and Vivo, with more regional partners in Asia now being sought.

The deal is emblematic of Alibaba’s growing presence in the sports sector, with it holding a 38-per-cent stake in CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande, a wide-reaching broadcast deal with the Pac-12 conference, as well as senior executive Joe Tsai’s personal stake (49 per cent) in the Brooklyn Nets and a pro lacrosse team in San Diego.

Youth team leaves Germany following Tibet protest

China’s first significant youth football venture into Germany has ended in tears after the U20 national team was ordered to fly home to China following a protest at last week’s game at TSV Schott Mainz.

During the first of a series of friendly games against teams in one of Germany’s fourth-tier regional leagues, members of the Chinese contingent noticed a tiny protest involving half a dozen people and four Tibet flags, which are typically used to express support for an independent Tibetan state.

With the Chinese players refusing to play until the flags were removed, the game was delayed for 25 minutes, before the flags were taken down and the Chinese side agreed to continue.

But with the German FA stating last week that they did not intend to suppress any peaceful, legal protests in subsequent games, all remaining games this year were suspended, as the two sides sought a resolution.

However, it quickly became obvious that the Chinese side could not countenance the presence of any flags, while the German side would not ban them, and so the players have now returned to China. This experiment was the first major initiative following a government-level football agreement signed earlier this year, but the Tibetan issue is considered so sensitive that some are now saying China may abandon Germany entirely and seek out other partners.

One such possibility could be the Czech Republic, following the news that the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has signed a deal with SK Slavia Prague on youth team training programmes.

The Czech side, which was bought by Chinese conglomerate CEFC China Energy Company Limited in 2015, will provide a training centre for China’s national youth teams and arrange friendlies against top Czech youth sides.

The Czech FA will also send some of its referees to the Chinese Super League and will help the CFA train Chinese referees.

This feature by the state-run Xinhua news agency says CEFC “has become a well-known enterprise in the Czech Republic and won the Czech people's respect for Chinese brands”, although that is likely an effort to counteract some negatives headlines circulating about the organization.

Uefa probe into AC Milan ownership

Following last week’s New York Times expose on the Chinese owners of AC Milan, reports have now surfaced that Uefa is awaiting the results of an investigation into the source of the club’s funds. Aleksander Ceferin, European football’s governing body’s president, is thought to be skeptical about the outcome.

A report by Marca says the Italian club has made financial commitments which appear to be based on qualifying for the Champions League, a strategy which could contravene Financial Fair Play rules and earn them a ban from continental competitions. Currently, Milan lies sixth in Serie A, 11 points off a Champions League place, with Uefa set to make a decision on the club’s future on December 8.

Home fighters shine during UFC debut

The UFC has made its long-awaited debut in mainland China with a Fight Night event in Shanghai that saw five of eight Chinese fighters win their bouts and give a large crowd at Mercedes-Benz Arena plenty to cheer.

The US-based MMA organisation has already held events in Europe, Australia and Asia this year, but had not yet visited the Chinese mainland, despite three previous events to Macau, ceding ground to the Singapore-based ONE Championship, which first came to China three years ago, as well as other locally-promoted events.

The UFC claims it has 28 million fans in China, though given the fact that the fight between Conor McGregor, one of its biggest stars, and boxer Floyd Mayweather was streamed for free here, the UFC’s road to riches in China could be a long one.

Beijing Guoan unveils commercial plan

CSL side Beijing Guoan has announced its sponsorship plans for the 2018 season, with the club grouping its partnerships into three categories: partners, sponsors and suppliers, worth a minimum of 50m RMB (€6.4/$7.6m), 5m RMB, and 1m RMB, respectively.

The asking price for the front-of-shirt sponsorship is 100m RMB, a figure which would place it seventh in the English Premier League table of shirt deals.

However, that’s the figure reportedly pledged last year by LeTV, much of which likely never ended up in the club’s coffers, so a realistic number for 2018 would perhaps be significantly lower.

Also this week…

Further reading…

The China Digest is written by Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, which features sports business news and analysis related to China’s fast-growing sports industry. He has worked for Sky Sports, Fox Sports, AP Sports and many others, and has covered major sporting events on five continents, including three Olympic Games. He has been based in China since 2007.

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