The World: Why the China syndrome has big clubs baffled

Europe's footballing powerhouses are struggling to tap into the enormously lucrative Chinese market, John Tylee writes.

The Great Brawl of China or, if you prefer, last month's training match between Queens Park Rangers and the Chinese Olympic team, which ended in a mass punch-up and a broken jaw for one of the visiting players, certainly gives culture clash a whole new meaning.

Those flying fists are also a rather extreme manifestation of the kind of problems and pitfalls awaiting Western sports brands in general - and English Premier League clubs, in particular - looking to build fan bases and tap the wallets of millions of people never likely to pass through their turnstiles.

"What happened at QPR just goes to show the lack of understanding among the Chinese of what sport really means," Rowan Simons, who has spent more than 20 years organising media and sports ventures in China, explains. "Face is everything. They think it's better to cheat than to lose. No wonder they love watching Italian football so much."

For European clubs like Manchester United (which has just poached Saatchi & Saatchi's chief executive, Lee Daley, to be its global commercial director), Chelsea, Barcelona and AC Milan wanting to export their domestic appeal, the embryonic Chinese market can be deceptively seductive.

Not only does China have more TV sets than any other country in the world, but also access to hundreds of hours of foreign football a year. Chinese viewers have been tuning in to FA Cup games since the 80s. What's more, they have an insatiable interest in the handful of Chinese players signed by English clubs, such as Manchester United's Dong Fangzhuo and Manchester City's Sun Jihai, even when they are just on the subs' bench.

But there is a massive offside trap waiting to be sprung on any big European club believing an aggressive marketing campaign will result in masses of converts to their brand. And it's not just the fact that for each official club shirt sold, another ten fake versions will be available.

For one thing, football does not have the fervent following in China it has in most other parts of the world. Table tennis, badminton, basketball and volleyball all enjoy huge popularity. For another, the big US sports bodies have moved into China and marketed themselves so well that they have left the beautiful game in their wake.

America's National Football League (representing gridiron) has spent recent years ingratiating itself at grassroots level with its Flag Football tournament, which has introduced thousands of Chinese children to the game. The National Basketball Association has been equally active. "In China, they probably know more about the Houston Rockets than any English Premiership team," Jim O'Toole, the chief executive of 141 Sport & Entertainment, WPP's global sports marketing consultancy, says.

The fundamental problem for football is that the tribalism which fuels the game across the world is not understood in China, where fans are far more fickle. Indeed, it isn't unusual for a football follower to declare himself a fan of both Real Madrid and Arsenal.

"Football in China is a pastime. It's not a passion," Simons says. "There is no loyalty." Allegiances can change every week depending on how well - or badly - a team is performing. Moreover, individual stars like Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are often more popular than the clubs they play for.

"China is a country with lots of history, and this is important to the Chinese," Henry Pierse, the managing director of Global Broadcast Networks, which supplies UK football programming for Chinese radio, points out. "They often don't know that UK football clubs have histories, too. If they did, they could relate to it."

Moreover, establishing a presence for European clubs in China can only proceed at a pace the country's economic development will allow. It may provide the world's biggest TV audience, but, as Jennifer Broughton, the research services manager at the China-Britain Business Council points out, there are still millions of Chinese who do not own a set. What's more, she adds, only about a third of China's 1.2 billion population has an income level that would make them attractive to advertisers.

It is the sheer scale of China that leads marketing experts to doubt that even one of the Premier League's big four clubs could conquer it alone. "No club has a big enough budget to win the loyalty of Chinese fans," Simons argues. "Football's problem in China is that, unlike other major sports, no single body represents it."

So, if, as O'Toole suggests, "you can't crack the Chinese market, you can only sample bits of it", what are Europe's clubs to do if they are to win a slice of the action?

It may involve some tough decisions, ones which pride will not allow them to take. For example, would a club be prepared to push one of its star players as an "ambassador" rather than promote its own brand? Would it be willing to submerge its own ambition within a generic campaign funded by a number of Premiership clubs?

Some suggest European clubs might be better off concentrating on a single city (Guangzhou alone has a population of 6.6 million) and converting all of its football lovers into "virtual" supporters. Maybe clubs might consider linking with big business, so allowing companies wanting to break into the Chinese market to "piggyback" on football's popularity.

"The key to success is tangibility," O'Toole claims. "Clubs have to build their brands into something the Chinese can get their arms around. An internet-based product may be the way to go."