For thousands of years the west has had a mystical fixation on Asia; now the digital world has brought us closer together than ever before, but the sports business world is still a fluid and evolving mystery to many. With that in mind, we connected with Mark Dreyer, a longtime media member with UK and Canadian roots who was recently in New York and has launched a great site, China Sports Insider. Mark’s understanding of the marketplace is interesting, and he was good enough to answer a few questions for us, for what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue as the world; especially the sports world; gets even closer together.
How has the Chinese sports landscape…in China…changed the most in the past five years?
There are two main drivers here: 1) Almost exactly three years ago, the Chinese government declared that sports would be an essential part of the economy, with the aim of building the country’s sports economy into the world’s largest – worth, they hope, $800 billion – by 2025. That has driven a huge amount of investment into the sports sector, as companies/individuals realize that investing in sports can be both politically and financially smart, and has seen increased targets for participation set by just about every sport from grassroots level up. Concurrently, there’s been a sea change in social acceptance of sports, especially among the growing middle class of some 300 million people, that sports can be beneficial for children instead of simply being a distraction from the all-important academic side. Those two factors have seen Chinese people getting involved in sports in record numbers across the board, making it a very exciting time to be involved in the industry.
But there are also huge knowledge gaps, which means there’s a ton of opportunities, too.
What’s the biggest misconception the sports business world has about sport in China?
Without a doubt, it has to be the numbers. Yes, China has close to 1.4 billion people and, yes, people are playing sports in record numbers, but that doesn’t mean 300 million people are about to take up your sport. The examples are everywhere: I could list about 20 European soccer clubs who claim they have close to 100 million fans in China, which means that the numbers are either very wrong or that the concept of what it is to be a “fan” is very, very different to the western notion. “If we can just get 1% of the population…” is a phrase that has inspired – and disappointed – countless executives across all sectors, not just sports, but the problem is, it’s not that easy to crack China. There are only certain sectors of the population to target – remember that close to half the country still live in rural areas, which are light years behind world-class cities like Beijing or Shanghai in terms of development. There are still a lot of people to go around, but every sport is targeting a similar demographic, so it’s still pretty competitive.
We hear about basketball and soccer being the growth oppts. What is the real business opportunity there?
Winter sports are seeing a boom in the run up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and mass participation sports – running, swimming, cycling, fitness trends etc – are also seeing a lot of growth, but China needs help at all levels and in almost all sports. To pick soccer as one example, 99% of the headlines are devoted to what happens on the pitch, but China desperately needs help when it comes to other areas, such as training facilities, pitch building and maintenance, stadium building and maintenance, food/beverage and the “matchday experience”, coaching, refereeing – the list goes on and on. Long term, of course, China would like to be able to handle all these things itself, but we are a long, long way from that goal and there are opportunities at every level in the meantime. Finland, for example, has positioned itself as the go-to country when it comes to building new ice rinks, as a way to capitalize on the winter sports boom. In the same vein, other countries, companies and individuals should be looking to exploit these gaps and work with the Chinese to fill the talent and knowledge vacuum.
Why is the Joe Tsai Nets potential purchase so important to the development of Chinese sport; or is it?
As I wrote in a recent piece, Joe is not a typical “Chinese” sports owner, given that’s he a Canadian citizen whose love of sports was forged during his education in the US. That said, he is a co-founder and senior executive of arguably China’s best-known company and this move typifies the trend we’ve seen