Published July 30, 2013
HONG KONG (AFP) – The Premier League's top sides went on money-spinning tours of Asia this month that saw them take in a total of six countries or territories. But there was one glaring omission: mainland China.
Many businesses see the fast-developing country -- now the world's second-biggest economy -- as "the holy grail", said Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, adding that he didn't "quite see it in the same way".
Nor, seemingly, do Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, Sunderland and Manchester rivals United and City, all of whom have been in Asia on lucrative pre-season trips, without including mainland China on their exhaustive itineraries.
Football and marketing experts said there were a number of commercial, logistical and sporting reasons for staying away.
"We are in a very fortunate position in that we operate in 212 countries and China is in the top 10 of our strategic markets," Scudamore told AFP in Hong Kong last week, where City, Spurs and Sunderland each played two games in four days in the Premier League's Barclays Asia Trophy.
Each team picked up 1.2 million pounds ($1.8 million) for appearing in the exhibition tournament, according to The Daily Telegraph.
"For a lot of businesses, in terms of business and marketing, China seems to be the holy grail. We don't quite see it in the same way because as I said, we are in a fortunate position where we are in so many other countries," said Scudamore.
"But clearly, just looking at the numbers, it's a huge country and hugely emerging, emerging in terms of its sporting culture.
"And therefore we are involved in China, we have good partners in China -- it took us a while to find them, but we have some very good partners in China.
"It's not just a broadcasting entity, it's a marketing entity and we are working out in the regions in China because you cannot really describe China as a single entity, given the size, the scope and the expansion of it."
Premier League teams in recent weeks played in front of fanatical sell-out crowds in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The clubs charge appearance fees and they benefit from sales of official merchandise, as well as trading on their huge popularity by signing myriad sponsorship deals.
Tiger Tian, a sports marketing expert in Beijing, said a combination of factors had kept English teams out of China this summer. Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City were all in the country last year, he noted, but said football fans in major cities were becoming increasingly "picky".
"They're fed-up with big names but poor performances, which unfortunately had been the case on several occasions when Premier League teams visited before," said Tian, explaining that was less the fault of the teams and more the travelling, difficult pitches and limited quality of the opposition.
"Rapidly rising costs and limited sources of revenue are also threatening promoters' bottom lines. Premier League teams, like everyone else in the world, see China as a goldmine and ask for higher and higher appearance fees.
"Obtaining all kinds of government permits is also extremely demanding in terms of both time and funds, and there's always a danger of a last-minute shutdown."
Several games involving European teams in China have been shelved at the eleventh hour.
In May, a friendly between Italian giants AC Milan and Dutch champions Ajax in Beijing was cancelled three weeks before kick-off because of "organisational reasons". The organisers had failed to pay an appearance fee on time, Chinese media said.
Barcelona also ditched their August game in Shanghai "after coming to the conclusion that it could not be played in perfect conditions", the club said.
Julian Jackson, of the sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, said there was "a fairly easy reason" why China had not got in on the Premier League jamboree.
The league's failure to strike a deal to have games shown on China's all-powerful state broadcaster CCTV means it simply does not have the same following as elsewhere in the football-mad region, he said.
"Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand traditionally have stronger support for the teams that come here.
"They've had every single match on television for the last six or seven years. China on the other hand is just really dipping its toes into the Premier League."
Lewis Hannam, founder of Red Lantern Digital Media, a company which helps sports brands and athletes such as Wayne Rooney promote themselves in China using new media, said Hong Kong was a compromise option.
"China is still a maturing market in terms of holding sports events," he said.
"Ticket prices for games featuring teams from overseas are often over-priced in relation to local incomes, thus leading to underwhelming attendances, while the infrastructure and practicalities of business in China often make the prospect of having a pre-season tour something of a headache.
"Certainly China will always seem an attractive prospect for foreign teams, but Hong Kong is perhaps seen as the safer access point to that market for now."