December 30, 2019 / 3:53 AM / 6 months ago

Breakingviews - Soccer giant will field Chinese star to kick sales

Soccer Football - Thailand v China - International Friendly - Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok, Thailand - June 2, 2018 - China's Wu Lei (C-R) in action with Thailand's goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan (L) and Pansa Hemviboon (R). REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Chinese talent will help a top soccer team score multiple goals in 2020. Super-clubs like Manchester United need to tap new income streams as growth slows in sales of European broadcast rights, a traditional cash cow. Signing a player from the People’s Republic, where as many as 300 million people watch the sport, could be one way to plump up the top line. 

A golden run is coming to a close. Revenue from UK rights for the English Premier League (EPL) for 2019 to 2022 fell by 10%, the largest decline since the pay-TV live viewing of games began, according to Enders Analysis. Income from digital streams are in flux. International rights sales for the EPL and Spain’s La Liga, meanwhile, grew by 35% over the same period.   

A further good kick will come from the right player. Just look at 28-year-old Wu Lei: the Chinese striker played for Shanghai SIPG before joining middling European club Espanyol. He helped them attract over 40 million Chinese viewers during a February game after spending just 12 minutes on the pitch. It is similar to how Manchester United’s signing of midfielder Park Ji-Sung gave the team a sales boost in his native South Korea.

The spoils from a Chinese buy can be rich because local fans often follow players over teams, so a smart purchase would also boost overseas sponsorship deals and sales of match-day tickets. That huge potential haul will tempt a club to take the reputational hit of fielding a sub-par athlete.

It’s easier to tap the hallowed market by buying a single player than, say, purchasing an entire Chinese team with opaque finances. Most clubs in the Middle Kingdom’s local Super League are state-owned and sales from tickets and broadcast streams are limited, making them poor money-spinners.                                                      

China will host the debut of the new expanded 24-team FIFA Club World Cup in 2021 and wants to become a national soccer superpower by 2050. That means the fan base, and potential earnings, will continue to grow rapidly. Expect the likes of Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain to bring Chinese players to the top of the big leagues in the coming year. 

Breakingviews

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