Chinese Super League Fortunes to be made, lost in China's football 'Wild West'

Some investors are buying into clubs to learn the business and bring skills back to China.

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Chinese Super League teams spent more than $400 million on players in 2016, including Shanghai SIPG signing, Hulk play

Chinese Super League teams spent more than $400 million on players in 2016, including Shanghai SIPG signing, Hulk

(AFP/File)
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Heavy Chinese investment is reshaping the landscape of world football but fortunes could be lost as well as made in an environment that remains "a bit Wild West".

Few expect the flow of money to dry up quickly after a year marked by a surge in Chinese purchases of foreign clubs, players and TV rights.

It's a trend, kick-started by the football ambitions of President Xi Jinping, that has had plenty of agents and club-owners sniffing an opportunity.

But turning a profit isn't a straightforward matter, warned ex-Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, now working as a strategic advisor.

"There's going to be a lot of money made and a lot of money lost, for sure. It is a bit Wild West," he said at last month's LeSports Connects forum in southern China.

"I think you've got to come here with your eyes wide open and understand the dynamics."

Kenyon has worked on "a couple" of Chinese acquisitions, including the Wanda Group's purchase of a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid.

Inter Milan, Manchester City, Lyon, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion are among the long list of clubs also to attract Chinese investment or buy-outs.

Meanwhile, Chinese Super League teams spent more than $400 million on players this year, many still at their peak including Alex Teixeira, Gervinho and Hulk.

Kenyon said it was a myth that Chinese investors didn't know the market and were prepared to overpay, adding that the ones he knew were smart and sophisticated.

'A lot of serious people'

"It's not a backward, Third World country, it isn't. Thinking because they're Chinese, they're just going to overpay, they're not," he said.

"If they overpay, in your mind, it's because they've got a different game plan. So don't be fooled."

Some investors are buying into clubs to learn the business and bring skills back to China, where the sports industry is projected to be worth $800 billion by 2025.

But part of the calculation is also political, as many tycoons believe involvement in football buys favour from Xi, who wants China to become a soccer superpower.

"I see a lot of serious people evaluating the market," Kenyon said.

"Inevitably you also see other people evaluating the market and you just know they're not going to be that successful."

Jamie Reigle, Manchester United's Asia-Pacific commercial director, said he wasn't clear how Chinese investors were going to apply their new knowledge to domestic teams.

"I have not seen yet a very clear strategy from the investors, saying 'I'm going to own this asset and this is my plan'," he said.

"That's okay, you can learn and it might take a few years.

"(Then) you (will) see whether the owners did it for strategic reasons... or was it just an attempt to attract attention or favour with the government?"

'Mind-boggling' scale

Wanda's investment in Atletico, this year's Champions League runners-up, was several years in the making and evolved from an initiative to develop Chinese players.

At the other end of the scale is the chaotic purchase of AC Milan by a Chinese consortium, which requested a three-month delay to complete the transaction after failing to meet a December 13 deadline.

Kenyon called the Milan situation "ludicrous", adding: "There's no need for that. There is enough real investment here, real people, real companies, to not have to do that.

"It's not good for football that you get deals that fall apart, and it's not good for China's image."

As if to underline the turbulence of China's nascent sports industry, digital media company LeSports, which hosted last month's conference in Dongguan, is reportedly set to slash staff over financial problems.

Such rumbles weren't about to deter hundreds of delegates at the forum including keynote speaker and former England captain Rio Ferdinand, who is hoping to expand his media interests in China.

"What's different here is that the scale of the projects is mind-boggling compared to what you can do in England," said Ferdinand.

Kenyon predicted that China would be a "disruptor to the traditional football family", but agreed the country's sheer scale was what made it attractive.

"I think they can bring an awful lot. How many other investment groups can bring a market of 1.4 billion?" he said.

"And the ones that get it right I think will be really, really successful."

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