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China Digest | Mengniu becomes fourth Chinese Russia 2018 sponsor

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

Mengniu becomes fourth Chinese World Cup 2018 sponsor

Dairy giant Mengniu Group has become the fourth Chinese company to sponsor the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, joining fellow Chinese firms Hisense and Vivo, as well as Budweiser and McDonald’s, as second-tier “World Cup Sponsors”, one level below the top tier of “Fifa Partners”, of which Wanda is a member. However, Fifa still has 21 of a maximum 34 sponsorship slots vacant less than six months before the start of the tournament, although Chinese sports and entertainment firm Desports is currently soliciting bids from companies across Asia wishing to be “regional sponsors”, the lowest of Fifa’s three tiers. Mengniu is very well known in China, as is its main rival Yili, which is also active in sports sponsorship and has already signed up as an official sponsor for Beijing 2022. Both dairy firms were caught up in the notorious 2008 melamine milk scandal, which was covered up in part to avoid embarrassment during the 2008 Olympics, although the main culprit was Sanlu, which went bankrupt soon after the scandal emerged.

Barnsley takeover has Chinese connection

Barnsley FC has become the latest European football club to get a Chinese connection, after a consortium headed by Chinese-American businessman Chien Lee agreed to take a majority stake in the club, with the Financial Times estimating the transaction is likely to be worth “between £10m and £20m”. Lee, owner of NewCity Capital, has teamed with Pacific Media Group and “Moneyball” US baseball executive Billy Beane, among others, to form an intriguing ownership group. Given Beane’s statistical nous and Lee’s experience running French Ligue 1 club OGC Nice, which qualified for this year’s UEFA Champions League for the first time after just one year under Lee’s stewardship, Barnsley fans will be understandably optimistic. However, not everyone has been keen to tie themselves to Lee: following widespread media reports which claimed he co-founded a couple of budget hotel chains in China, hotelier Plateno Group issued a press release distancing itself from both Lee and from any future overseas football deals, which have not been viewed favorably in China in recent months.

Chinese FA cancels matches over Tibet protest

In a development that should come as no surprise to regular readers of the China Digest, the Chinese FA has now officially cancelled a series of friendlies for its U20 national team against teams in one of Germany’s fourth-tier leagues due to an incident at the very first match, in which half a dozen protesters displayed a handful of Tibetan flags. The aim had been to give the Chinese side invaluable experience ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the marked difference in approach between FAs over how to handle the protesters meant it was impossible for the matches to continue. Reports have suggested that the CFA may now look elsewhere to schedule some games – with Belgian media reporting Belgium could be next – but it’s highly likely China would face similar problems. Here’s a detailed breakdown of why it all went wrong and the possible implications for China’s wider sporting ambitions.

Manchester City plans Chinese soccer programme

Manchester City has announced plans to launch a new football programme in China in partnership with the Beijing-based Kaiwen Academy, which it hopes will replicate the training philosophy pioneered by its coaches back in Manchester. City Football Schools will oversee a bespoke training programme, while Chinese participants will also travel to the UK each summer to train at the City Football Academy. This comes amid China’s plan to boost grassroots and youth participation in soccer throughout the country, with the target of 50 million youngsters playing regularly by 2020. While Manchester United boasts a larger global following, City received a huge boost in late 2015 when star striker Sergio Agüero took a selfie alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-UK PM David Cameron during an official visit to the club, where Chinese legend Sun Jihai had played from 2002 to 2008. This lengthy piece in The Guardian also confirms that City’s parent company CFG is still “actively looking” to add a Chinese club to its growing global portfolio.

Jia Yueting refuses China recall

Jia Yueting, founder of LeSports’ parent company LeEco, has defied an order to return to China to sort out his financial situation, opting instead to send his wife. Jia said in a statement that he intends to remain in the US to continue fundraising for a joint project between LeEco and Faraday Future to develop the FF91 luxury electric vehicle, despite the China Securities Regulatory Commission ordering him to return to China by the end of 2017. Jia mentioned that his brother would meet with the CSRC in person, while his wife apparently landed in Beijing on New Year’s Eve, posting messages on social media from the airport that she was back to complete a mission. That mission became somewhat harder last week as a Beijing court seized more than 1.3m RMB ($200,000) in bank deposits owned by Jia, reportedly all the assets of his it could find.

Qianbao chief turns himself in to police

Meanwhile, the head of Real Sociedad’s shirt sponsor has turned himself into police after authorities announced an investigation into his online financing platform, Qianbao, which has handled over 50bn RMB ($7.65bn) in transactions over the past five years. A message posted on Qianbao’s website Qbao.com – whose name is emblazoned across Real Sociedad’s shirts – said Zhang Xiaolei was “suspected of committing crimes”. The firm also sponsors China League Two club Chengdu Qianbao FC, whose Kelme-designed shirts brilliantly reflect the prevalence of the giant panda in the local area.

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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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