Europe's leading club sides are unwise to bank on China providing a new source of revenue, marketing experts have warned. Chelsea recently became the latest to announce plans to expand into the country as part of the chief executive Peter Kenyon's vision to make them the biggest club in the world by 2014.
Manchester United, Real Madrid, Milan and Internazionale have already made China, along with the United States, the focus of their ambitions to build up a global brand. The success of the Premier League in securing £625m in overseas television revenue and new US-based club owners concentrating on the world market have driven this push to expand.
But marketing experts and those with an understanding of Chinese sport say that the American NBA and NFL behemoths are making better headway and warn that in the scramble for short-term revenues European clubs are failing to nurture a real love for the sport.
The NBA, aided by the huge popularity of the Houston Rockets player Yao Ming, is a long way ahead of European football, according to Jim O'Toole, the chief executive of a sports agency, 141, owned by the advertising and marketing giant WPP.
"The numbers we see from the latest television deal are phenomenal but to actually transact with those people is a bigger challenge," he says. "How do Chelsea make their brand tangible? They run the risk of confusing lots of hours of television exposure, not always at the right time of day, with genuine affinity."
Rowan Simons, who has worked in the Chinese television industry for more than 20 years and is a consultant to several international sports organisations, says: "The biggest enemy to football is the NBA. It controls everything in basketball - it's one brand, one rights deal, all the teams and all the stars under one body. As a result, basketball is picking up thousands and thousands of kids."
American Football has no history in the country, but the NFL has launched a programme to introduce flag football, its equivalent of touch rugby, into schools before bringing over the full game in four or five years' time. "That's where the NBA and the NFL, organisations that have a collective marketing structure and collective ownership of their brand, can take a long-term view of how to crack this huge market. Our football clubs all want to get an edge over the competition," says Simons.
Chelsea will point to their newly-launched Chinese language website as an attempt to play a similarly long game. Rather than opting for the United approach of touring and using that bridgehead to open up branded cafés and shops, the London club plan to expand their grassroots coaching programme to 15 cities and build links with governing bodies.
To date, the biggest football brands have tended to cannibalise one another, says Simons: "Last year we saw Manchester United and Real Madrid turn up within a week of each other and they played to half-empty stadiums."
Shambolic attempts to establish a professional football league in China have not helped. Henry Peirse, the managing director of Global Broadcast Networks, which produces a radio programme based on English football that goes out on China National Radio, says there is a natural cynicism that must be overcome. "There is an inherent distrust of all things football, locally and internationally. That's perhaps why basketball is so popular. "
Changing social attitudes to school sport, traditionally seen as an unwelcome distraction, and a growing middle class could yet provide the conditions for football to flourish. But building sustainable success will take years, if not decades, requiring a focus on long-term investment and a co-ordinated Premier League approach.
it's interesting that the NBA has more of an appeal than the Premiership
to an extent, though, it does make sense...it is a lot easier for the NBA to get a foothold in an area because it operates as a league, whereas Premiership teams operate independently...and seeing as no western sports league was getting access to china before the eighties, it isnt as though the Prem had a foothold to begin with...