“A Little Bit of Soul” was the title of a talk I gave at RCD Espanyol when the club was looking for Asian investors, with the subtitle “Football as a Business Platform for Asian Companies”. Here’s a reflection on the sport’s marketing appeal: professional football is the world’s most popular sport. Sixty percent of fans see football as a religion, 67% have cried at a football stadium, and 78% often bring family members to matches with them. Venues such as the new RCD Espanyol Stadium, which won the Venue of the Year Award at the 2010 Stadium Business Awards, are pure emotional retail.
My conclusion was that working in professional football entails an evolution from simple sponsorship to emotional content: rituals in the stands such as Borussia Dortmund’s Südtribüne and Iceland’s ‘Viking thunderclap’ celebration at the recent Eurocup. Pure branding – seared into the skin!
But if marketing evolves from “offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large” – according to the AMA 2007 definition of marketing – today football is a marketing asset directed towards other stakeholders. If we analyse Chinese entrepreneurs’ incursions into European football, we notice the professionalisation of the process:
- From the passion of the benevolent leader to the passion of the new megamillionaires. A lifelong football fan, President Xi Jinping hopes the sport will provide new challenges for China’s 1.4 billion citizens. Three of the country’s ten largest fortunes have already invested in football. Business, relationships and egos. Millionaires such as Jack Ma (Alibaba), Jia Yueting (LeEco) and Wang Jianlin (Wanda) have invested in shares of Atlético de Madrid and Manchester City, as well as Chinese teams such as the top club Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao.
- Expanding the list of stakeholders: They buy the television rights agency Infront, headed by the nephew of Sepp Blatter; they buy shares in Jorge Mendes’s Gestifute, the largest football agency service; and they buy the television rights to the China Super League – a five-year contract worth $1.3 billion.
In China today, football is no longer a useless social hobby or an alternative to sponsoring. It provides dreams of world leadership, a multifaceted business, and content marketing for telling stories to attract and retain both customers and presidents of some republics.