Fullback billionaires up the ante in player signing

Updated: 2012-07-27 08:44

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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 Fullback billionaires up the ante in player signing

Chinese Internet tycoon Zhu Jun (right) brought Chelsea's former star striker Didier Drogba to his Shanghai Shenhua club in July at $300,000 a week. Liu Xingzhe / for China Daily

China's football club owners hope to follow abramovich model for success

When Roman Abramovich bought the Chelsea football club in 2003 for $233 million (192 million euros, it made history as the highest price ever paid for an English club.

But that was just the start of the Russian oil-tycoon's investment. In the following years, Abramovich paid out more than $80 million to settle the club's debt and hundreds of millions more recruiting what he hoped would be a star team.

Overall, it is estimated he spent more than $1.3 billion of his own money on something he considered a hobby.

But, in terms of team quality at least, the investment has paid off. In 2005, Chelsea FC won the English premier league title for the first time in 50 years, and has come top twice since. It also recorded four FA Cup final wins and two League Cup triumphs. And to crown them all, in May, Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League for the first time.

More importantly, the all-star team began packing stadium seats with fervent fans and boosting ticket sales.

It is this deep-pocketed Abramovich model of team development that seems to be driving the Chinese sports industry, as business moguls seek to shine the global spotlight on China's football teams.

Chinese Internet tycoon Zhu Jun, who made his fortune in the online gaming industry, has even gone as far as recruiting some of Abramovich's stars.

The owner of Shanghai Shenhua recently hit headlines after bringing Chelsea's former star striker Didier Drogba to join the team at a record $300,000 a week, making Drogba one of the highest paid football players in the world.

Drogba is joining two of Zhu's other recruits - his Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka and former Argentina national coach Sergio Batista. While it may not match Drogba's, their pay is still in the millions.

Further south, real estate baron Hui Ka-yan, owner of the Guangzhou Evergrande team, is investing equally heavily, packing in players such as Muriqui of Brazil on a $3.5 million contract, Borussia Dortmund's Lucas Barrios for $8.5 million, and World Cup-winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi for 10 million euros.

And it is not just football that passionate Chinese businessmen are dumping their money into.

In basketball, the Beijing Ducks are happy to pay players like Stephon Marbury $1.2 million a year to leave NBA prospects at home and become spotlight players in China.

But like Abramovic's star-studded Chelsea squad, which after almost a decade under his ownership are just beginning to make money, the cash spent on expensive players takes a while to return a profit - if it ever does.

"They don't spend the money to make a profit," says Matt Beyer, founder and managing director of Altius Culture, the first foreign sports agency that got the State certification in China.

"For them, it's more a way to promote their own businesses while giving the team a good image and supporting a sport they love."

Before signing players like Barrios, there were very few outside of China that had heard of Guangzhou Evergrande, named after Hui's real estate company.

But as the team snatches up prominent foreign players, people outside of China are gradually becoming familiar with the team and the company, if only because the players they once cheered for now reside in China.

More than just turning a few heads worldwide, the chance for Chinese sports fans to see star international players live has boosted the turnouts for teams such as Shanghai Shenhua and the Beijing Jinyu Ducks.

"Chinese fans that normally would only pay attention to the NBA are now showing up to watch NBA players in the CBA," Beyer says.

toddbalazovic@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 07/27/2012 page12)

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