China’s Championship Sponsors and the Relentless March of Beijing’s Politico-Economic Progress

2 juillet 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon.

For avid watchers of male football’s UEFA European Championships, currently being staged across several countries, one thing has occupied the minds of many observing off-field matters: what are those Chinese letters appearing on the pitch-side perimeter signage during the matches?

The words may be impossible for many Europeans to understand, some of the brand names may be unfamiliar, and the availability of their products may be non-existent in Paris, Prague and Porto, yet Alipay, Antchain, Hisense, TikTok and Vivo are surely now firmly implanted in the minds of fans and consumers alike.

The story is no different in Brazil, where the controversial staging of South America’s equivalent to the Euros – the Copa America – is now taking place. There had been problems finding a host for this year’s tournament, though Jair Bolsonaro’s populist government eventually stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Columbia, at which point several sponsors stepped-out.

The Copa America has therefore been left with only four sponsors: Betsson, Kwai, TCL and Sinovac, the latter three of which are Chinese. Sinovac Biotech is perhaps the most interesting of the Copa’s saviours: it is the pharmaceutical company responsible for driving the Chinese government’s response to Covid-19. Sinovac has not only developed a vaccine that is being widely used across China and several other countries, it also donated 50,000 doses of the vaccine to the Copa organisers.

During the last African Cup of Nations in Egypt, Africa’s equivalent of the Euros, Huawei was a prominent sponsor of the tournament. The telecommunications used the event as a platform for launching the rollout of its African 5G network, although the Cup of Nations was originally scheduled to take place in Cameroon (which relinquished hosting rights following organisational difficulties).

In 2022, Cameroon is scheduled to stage the tournament, which will see Africa’s best footballers playing games in a series of stadiums that have either been funded or constructed by China. Around the same time, Beijing will be hosting the Winter Olympic Games, which currently appears like a Chinese corporate brand fest with all manner of local companies already engaged as commercial partners. If you don’t know the Hengyuanxiang Group or Jinlongyu Cooking Oils, you soon will.

At the end of 2022, when the men’s World Cup takes place in Qatar, Hisense and Vivo will again be making an appearance, accompanied by China’s Wanda. And before that, Alibaba’s presence will be visible again at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. For bemused Europeans and others, they had better get used to those indecipherable messages that are increasingly populating their screens.

The profusion of Chinese sponsors now clustering around sport raises a question: why are they there? In simple terms, it’s because Chinese corporations have the money to acquire the sponsorship rights associated with sport events. At one level, the rapid and sometimes double-digit recent growth of the Chinese economy means that the likes of Alibaba have the resources to outbid their global rivals. At another level, European companies seem much less predisposed towards paying big money for their names to be associated with UEFA, the Olympics and others.

One reason for European reluctance to engage in such deals is that they are essentially based on visibility and awareness, that is people can see your name and may know what you do. Sponsorship in Europe is a rather more mature, sophisticated business practice than it appears to be in China. That said, perhaps this is what Chinese brands need right now hence the current raft of deals is something akin to a down payment on the future recall of consumers across the world.

The growing strength of Chinese industry, allied to the power of businesses from China, to out-muscle their sponsorship rivals, is exactly the game plan that government in Beijing has been pursuing over the last three decades. In the eyes of many across the country, China has ascended to its rightful place in the world and will now press home its economic advantage by attempting to sell us Vivo mobile phones upon which we all download TikTok.

Growth begets growth, and it won’t be too much longer before China overtakes the United States as the world’s biggest economy. However, China’s growth is not a triumph of business, profits and the free-market, rather there are strident ideological, state and strategic underpinnings to what its corporations do (many of which often play host to Communist Party branches).

The engagement with African football is particular striking; for more than a decade, China has been funding the development of stadiums across the continent, which have been freely constructed in return for access to natural resources such as oil and rare earths (which help sustain Chinese economic growth). Huawei’s 5G Egyptian rollout also marked the role that sponsorships play in Chinese attempts to secure first-mover competitive advantage in strategically important markets.

At the same time, sponsorships are very often used as the means to other ends and, as such, There’s no surprise that we are currently seeing Chinese sponsors clustering around football’s most important governing bodies. It is no secret that China wants to host the men’s World Cup, perhaps as early as 2030. Lavishing cash upon the likes of UEFA creates something of a financial dependence, and with dependence comes power. We should therefore expect that, when the time comes for football to vote on future World Cup hosting rights, China will start calling in some favours.

Though sponsorship is often labelled in business as being a form of marketing communication, sponsorship in China has clearly been elevated to a position of diplomatic and strategic importance. Sinovac’s ‘generous’ contribution of vaccines to the Copa America being an illustration of this, where sponsorship is a constituent part of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. One wonders too what role that data surveillance plays in China’s strategy. For instance, if Alipay becomes the prescribed payment platform for ticket purchases, then a company that has close links to the Chinese government will have access to all manner of personal information.

At the time of writing, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo was the leading scorer at the UEFA Euros. However, irrespective of which player eventually tops the charts, it seems likely that the top scorer at every event over the next year or so will be China.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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