Protracted return for professional sport in China

A fan waves the Chinese national flag as other cheer during the World Cup 2022 qualifier football match between China and Guam in Guangzhou on October 10, 2019. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Control of the Covid-19 pandemic remains China’s top priority
  • Sport in China may not make a full recovery this year
  • The Covid-19 crisis has forced out some of the weaker industry players

China now seems to be getting its sporting calendar back on track as the Chinese Basketball Association recommenced its 2020 season on June 20, following an almost five-month interruption due to Covid-19. The country’s professional football league, the Chinese Super League, which should have kicked off on February 22, will now start on July 25.

Professional sport was among the last commercial activity to return in China and industry insiders don’t expect a quick recovery to its pre-virus status.

“I think the sports industry in China has had a slow recovery in general, compared to other social activities,” says Shoto Zhu, Beijing-based founder and president of sports marketing and sponsorship firm, Oceans Marketing.

“I personally think that the China sports industry is still trying to find a way back to normal but due to the very strict disease control policy we have, things will be quite slow till the end of this year.”

To get back on the court and pitch, the CBA and CSL proposals for their respective restarts had to gain the endorsement of Chinese sports and health officials, and approval from the highest levels of the country’s central government.

Both had been seeking government approval for their Covid-19 containment measures for months and eventually recruited medical experts to provide advice and assist them in completing their seasons.

Containment actions

The 20 teams of the CBA league have been divided into two divisions and hosted in two venues to reduce travel. The remainder of the season is being played out in Qingdao in Shandong province and the southern city of Dongguan in Guangdong province, with all matches played behind closed doors.

Similarly, all league matches for the 2020 CSL season will be played out in two hubs, Dalian and Suzhou, in front of no crowds and under strict epidemic containment measures.

Richard Young, managing director at NFL China, thinks it’s still too early to tell if sport will make a full recovery this year.

“As we saw with the Beijing outbreak things can change quickly, and China is going to look to control any outbreak as quickly as possible. They will look to limit the impact on business but their first priority will be to control the virus,” says Young.

“Under these circumstances it is very hard to tell what will happen with the business of sport in China, particularly with regards to visas for foreign athletes.”

In mid-June the municipal government of Beijing halted all sports events after new Covid-19 cases were reported in the city.

Among the affected sports events, Chinese Super League team Beijing Guoan was forced to cancel planned friendly matches against Hebei China Fortune and Shandong Luneng.

The team’s head coach Bruno Genesio remains stuck in Europe to due travel restrictions, and has been using video conferencing to communicate with players and staff.

Echo Li managing director, Greater China and senior vice president global partnerships, at Sportfive agency said: “The return of the CSL and the CBA is viewed as a positive and exciting sign for the market, as everyone feels our life is slowly getting back to normal.”

“However it does not mean the beginning of the sports industry’s recovery in China. What’s behind the earlier postponement or cancellation of the tournaments is the collateral impact and financial loss on the event operations preparation, broadcast media production as well as ticket sales and sponsorship activation across the full year.”

“From a brand marketing perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic not only disrupted the original plans made by those who allocated major sports marketing budget to activate related assets in relations with 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2020 Euro this year, but also hugely affected the brands’ overall sales performance and the long-term product planning and strategy,” adds Li.

Despite the lingering Covid-19 concerns Mark Fisher, chief commercial officer East Asia Super League, has a more upbeat outlook. “We are very optimistic about the prospects for China sports over the next 6-12 months. In general, China has controlled the pandemic well, in many ways leading the world out of the crisis, with most public and private institutions already fully open. Sports in China should be no exception, and the CBA restart is a prime example of this.”

“Another positive trend here in China is the heightened emphasis on exercise, including sports, as an important factor in staying healthy. More people playing sports, and getting their kids to play sports, always translates into more sports fans over the long-term,” says Fisher. “This trend toward increased sports participation was already underway in China before Covid-19, and I believe will emerge even stronger as we recover from the pandemic.”

Financial problems

Yu Hang executive director at Football Marketing Asia in Hong Kong said: “I think it is definitely a positive sign that both domestic football and basketball are back in people ‘s life.”…“China is making huge efforts to fight the virus and to show its confidence to the world through sports events kicking off again after 6 months away because of the Covid outbreak.”

“We also see a huge demand from content consumption of the fans, and this will be an incentive for sponsors to launch a series of marketing campaigns around the events.”

The enforced shutdown also had a significant influence financially on Chinese football, with a number of clubs in China’s top three tiers of professional football folding in the last six months, including CSL side Tianjin Tianhai.

“The Covid-19 crisis has forced out some of the weaker industry players. For example, a number of professional soccer teams had to drop out of the CSL due to financial instability,” says Mark Fisher. “Bad news for those failing clubs perhaps, but good news for the prospects of reforming the CSL to establish more innovative and sustainable operating rules and procedures for the clubs that remain.”

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