Chinese athletes not keen on building international profile, and may not have to

China sports marketing panel at All That Matters 2019. Image credit: Kevin McCullagh

Chinese athletes are shying away from building their profiles in overseas markets because both the cultural challenge of doing so and the riches on offer at home are too great, according to local industry experts.

This was one of the insights from a panel on sports marketing in China at the All That Matters entertainment industry conference in Singapore on Wednesday.

Marcus Kam, chief commercial officer at sports marketing firm Gemdale Sports, said there wasn’t a big enough “opportunity of making income from abroad versus the amount of work you’d put in…For a lot of these athletes, they struggle at times in front of international media. It’s not easy to deal with a completely different culture”.

Oscar Hsu, business development director at another sports marketing firm, Anchor Hupu Sports, said: “Bringing Chinese players away, around the world is quite difficult right now, I think, because of the language and also, maybe, China is already big enough, and if you want to develop and grow you should focus [there]”.

Hsu said the responses of Chinese athletes he had spoken to about creating accounts on overseas social media platforms was typically: “I don’t have time. Maybe not yet. If I have more time, I will put a lot more effort on my Weibo account, my Douyin account, than these international accounts.”

The panel noted the contrast with the efforts of overseas athletes to build their profile within China. Owen Leed, commercial and communications director at the Badminton World Federation, said:

“If we take Lin Dan, who is known to anyone in the badminton community in China – multi-millionaire, superhero, poster-boy, huge achiever in the sport. Outside of the sport and outside of Asia [he’s] unknown.

“The flipside of that is the current top player out of Denmark, Viktor Axelsen…he taught himself Mandarin and he’s now a superstar in China.”

Axelsen, who is only 22 years old has said he learned Mandarin to improve his future prospects of securing sponsorships and coaching jobs.

International Table Tennis Federation marketing director Matt Pound said several Chinese players in his sport had intensely active domestic fan groups, who jointly organise travel to competitions to support their heroes and other initiatives. One fan group for female player Liu Shiwen raised money to put branding on a tram in Budapest during the 2019 World Championships wishing their idol happy birthday. The ITTF works with these groups, for example by giving them signed equipment to help with fundraising projects.

Public policy alignment

Also during the panel, the importance of sports properties in China aligning themselves with the objectives of government, both national and regional, was underlined.

Marcus Kam, whose company manages the commercial business around the Women’s Tennis Association Finals, which is currently hosted in Shenzhen under a ten-year agreement from 2019 to 2028, said: “For the foreseeable future for a major event in China, the majority of income is driven by sponsorship, be that the public sector or private sector. Not a lot of your money comes through the media environment in China. Your merchandise and ticketing still stay at a much lower level than sponsorship. So it’s really about what can you do to make your event sexier for a sponsor, especially government. A lot of the core commercial players are state-owned companies.”

When it came to convincing such companies to partner with his event, he said, it was “about how to satisfy the current policy”. In Shenzhen, this could mean helping the city achieve its goal of being the leading city in the Greater Bay Area on China’s south coast, which incorporates other major cities including Dongguan, Guangzhou and Foshan.

“How can our event make Shenzhen look better? How can we put them as a well-known city on the global map?” Kam said. 

He concluded: “If you are doing a major event in China and you don’t align yourself with public policy, you are down a very, very dark path!”