Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

China's soccer attendance catching up to European giants'

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-01-21 12:20

With the growing passion for soccer in China, it's not surprising that attendance at the country's professional matches is climbing.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has had the highest growth in average attendance of all competitions analyzed by the Football Benchmark team at KPMG Sports Practice in Budapest, Hungary.

The study compared attendance in the CSL, Major League Socc

er (MLS) in the United States and the Indian Super League (ISL) with the five major professional leagues in Europe.

The CSL saw a 16.7 percent increase compared with its 2014 season. The CSL now has an average attendance above 21,800, a few hundred spectators fewer than that of Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1.

"I believe we are only at the beginning of this growth cycle and that soon the CSL will become a highly successful and valuable football league," Andrea Sartori, global head of sport at KPMG Advisory Ltd, told China Daily. "In the meanwhile, the selling price of TV rights of major football leagues broadcasted in China is climbing sharply."

Unlike the traditional European leagues, CSL, MLS and ISL follow a calendar-year season. According to KPMG, all three leagues passed 20,000 in average attendance in the recently completed season.

China's soccer attendance catching up to European giants'

Although still far behind Germany's Bundesliga and England's Premier League, the three newer leagues' attendance has caught up with Serie A, Ligue 1 and Spain's La Liga.

Sartori also mentioned "the growing interest of iconic football players and trainers" - such as Marcello Lippi (former Italian national coach) joining Guangzhou a few years ago - in moving to CSL clubs.

And then there is the steady flow of Brazilian internationals paid millions to play in China.

Tianjin Quanjian FC of China's League 1 plans to purchase the rights to Brazilian striker Geuvnio Santos Silva, 23, for 30 million euros ($32.7 million).

Another Brazilian striker, Luiz Adriano de Souza da Silva who plays for A.C. Milan in Italy, this week agreed to a transfer to Jiangsu Suning of the CSL.

Carlos Gilberto Nascimento Silva (known as Gil) this week accepted a transfer from Brazil top-flight team Corinthians to Shandong Luneng.

Sartori said large Chinese corporations also are embracing soccer.

"This is proven by the investments of Wanda Group in Atletico Madrid and China Media Capital and CITIC Capital in (the) Manchester City global network of teams, which also includes the New York City Football Club," he said.

Finally, "the adjustment of TV times of some matches played in the Premier League in order to be broadcasted at prime time in China have contributed to the growing interest of football in China," Sartori said.

Lucrative television deals also are bringing the world's game to China. Sina Sports has reached a long-term deal with Manchester United to provide the English Premier League team's video content to its fans in China.

The club's 24-hour digital channel, MUTV, went live on Sina Sports on Sunday.

There are an estimated 108 million Man U fans in China.

"MUTV broadcasting in China is not only a first for United, but also a first for any 24-hour dedicated Premier League club channel," said Richard Arnold, United's group managing director.

"We are excited to see how this great club will grow its following through this partnership in China," said Wei Jianglei, senior vice-president of Sina Sports. "This will make great strides at changing the way Chinese followers watch and understand the game."

LeEco, formerly LeTV Holdings Co Ltd, recently renewed a deal for the 2016-19 rights to the Premier League on the mainland. The company signed cooperation agreements with Beijing Guoan Football Club on Tuesday.

"Le Sports will support the innovation-driven marketization of the club," said Lei Zhenjian, CEO of Le Sports, a LeEco subsidiary.

In December, CMC, a Shanghai private-equity firm that holds broadcast rights to the CSL, teamed with CITIC Capital Holdings to buy 13 percent of City Football Group for $400 million. City Football Group owns the Manchester City Football Club.

The deal values City Football Group at $3 billion, about the same as City's cross-town derby rival Manchester United, whose shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

President Xi Jinping visited Manchester City's facility during his UK state visit in October, where he took a selfie with Man City star Sergio Aguero and Prime Minister David Cameron.

In November, Rastar Group, another Chinese entertainment company, agreed to buy 56 percent of Espanyol, which plays in Spain's La Liga.

In January 2015, Dalian Wanda Group Co, whose chairman is billionaire Wang Jianlin, took a 20 percent stake ($52 million) in Atletico Madrid.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd last year paid $192 million for a 50 percent stake in Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club of the CSL.

China's men's squad has been to only one World Cup (2002). The women's squad, conversely, has six World Cup appearances and reached the quarterfinals in the summer, losing to eventual champion the United States.

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(China Daily USA 01/21/2016 page2)

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