Just as live sports are helping prop up the old world of television advertising, they can also be a potent force in international relations and trade. We saw it with the ping pong diplomacy of the early 70s, and as sport becomes an important part of life in China, it will be an increasingly significant driver for geopolitical relations and the goods and services trade. FIFA, the NBA, snow sports and other physical activities are taking advantage of this.
With the FIFA World Cup kicking off in Russia this week, the trend is looking positive. During the month-long football festival there may be times visitors feel like they’re at a Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao match.
Although China hasn’t played in a World Cup Finals since 2002, an estimated 100,000 Chinese are expected to visit Russia for the Cup, dwarfing the 10,000 football-mad English expected to be there whose team actually qualified. On top of that, Chinese brands Hisense, Mengniu, Vivo, electric bike maker Yadea and Dalian Wanda are joining the party to plug the World Cup sponsorship gap.
Like many things in China, Xi Jinping’s passions and policy are helping drive China’s enthusiasm for the beautiful game. The avid football fan Xi hinted last year that China will be bidding to host a World Cup in 2030 or 2034 and will be a “world football superpower” by 2050.
Feeding into the grand plan, Xi has announced that the number of football fields in China will grow from less than 11,000 in 2015 to 70,000 by 2020. China will have 50 million regular football players including 30 million students by then, and 50,000 schools will have a strong emphasis on football by 2025–up from just 5,000 in 2015.
The 100,000 visitors are a sign of changing times in China. They illustrate how Chinese are increasingly able and prepared to spend big bucks on their leisure pursuits.Back in 2002–when consumers were much less affluent than they are today–no more than 50,000 Chinese went to the World Cup Finals in South Korea and Japan when China was actually on the field.
The swathes of Chinese visitors ascending on Russia will have been further tempted by visa-free travel to its northern neighbor. On top of that, China’s blossoming relationship with Russia will also drive preference–as geopolitical circumstances usually do with Chinese travel trends. Russia seems to be the flavor of the month with Beijing as they look to provide a scalable alternative to Western ideologies.
The friendship comes at a good time for China as it recovers from the imprints of South Korea’s THAAD, ASEAN-contested island building and river damming, Japanese-disputed islands and historic invasions, the encircling of India and territory skirmishes, undermining of Australian sovereignty, Europe’s wariness of Chinese investment, lack of reciprocal access and sporadic trade disputes, and Trump.
As a symbol of their bond, Vladimir Putin was presented China’s first ever “friendship medal” by President Xi at a lavish event broadcast live from the Great Hall of the People. Since becoming president, Xi has visited Moscow more than any other capital city and Putin said that Xi Jinping was the only world leader who celebrated his birthday.
Putin was in China last week for the enlarged Russia-China led Eurasian SCO bloc meeting as the G7 floundered. Russia, which is managing its own diplomatic challenges elsewhere has recently signed a series of deals with China who announced relations between two countries were at “the best level in history.”
In short, this year’s World Cup couldn’t have been better timed for Russia to tap into the opportunity that China presents. China is providing a much-needed shot in the arm to FIFA and the World Cup’s fortunes , filling the gap left by traditional fans such as England and big brand sponsorship. It is another example of the wide-reaching impact that China is having on everything from football to the price of milk.
For the Russian businesses that stand to benefit from an influx of Chinese visitors–let’s hope you make them welcome. Mobile payments and the slew of other China-ready initiatives will ensure they have a better time, spend more and advocate Russia to the masses at home.