Stepping onto the soccer pitch at Beijing No 4 High School, where he started playing the game about 50 years ago, Zhang Lu, vice-president of Chinese Super League club Beijing Guo’an, couldn’t help recalling fond memories of dribbling a rubber ball on the then-worn-out turf every evening after school.
“This is right where my generation’s passion for the game took root and blossomed. I am extremely happy to see how far it has developed,” said Zhang, who enrolled at the school in 1967, during a recent visit.
Nearly half a century later, the school campus has been extended, the once-shabby pitch has been replaced by an evergreen, artificial pitch and a school league has just kicked off its eighth season, featuring more than 200 students.
The game’s popularity at the school, which is renowned for high academic standards, has impressed Zhang, who played as goalkeeper for the Beijing municipal team in his youth.
“This is just a students’ league, but it seems so professionally organized. It’s a good move to highlight soccer as an educational tool. I am delighted to see the students enjoying the game on campus like we used to,” he said.
Wu Hong, a physical education teacher at the school, said 170 male and 100 female students have signed up for an optional weekly soccer PE course.
Wu and his students are part of a network of 34 elementary and secondary schools in the capital that provides soccer-specialty courses as part of China’s plan to raise the profile of the game from the grassroots up to the professional level.
Alex Teixeira of Jiangsu Suning in action during a match against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors from South Korea in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on March 1.[Photo by Shi Rui/China Daily]
In March last year, inspired by President Xi Jinping’s expressed desire to see China qualify for, host and eventually win the FIFA World Cup, the pinnacle of the professional game, the central government issued a blueprint to boost the game’s development through youth promotion and reform of the professional leagues.
The number of schools with mandatory soccer courses is targeted to reach 50,000 by 2025, from more than 8,000 at present, and 50,000 school soccer teachers will be trained in the next five years.
According to the Ministry of Education, 146 government-funded youth coaches from overseas have already worked across the country with students and teachers, and a further 120 more will be invited this year.
Pei Encai, a former coach of the Chinese women’s national team, who now runs a youth training camp with Ray Sports, a company based in Beijing, said the game needs to attract more young people.
“The only way to build a solid grassroots foundation for the game is to do it on campus. We will only be able to build professional competence when enough kids are playing soccer in schools,” Pei said.
Compared with the patient approach adopted by promoters of youth soccer, lavish investment in the game at the elite level has rocked the soccer world as Chinese teams rush to raise the game’s profile by hiring big-name foreign players.
During the latest winter transfer window, clubs in the CSL, China’s top-flight competition, spent a staggering 334 million euros ($374 million), the highest of any league in the world according to the German sports website Transfermarkt. The cash on offer has lured a veritable foreign legion to play in the CSL’s 2016 season, which kicked off on March 4.
Attacking Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira, who cost his new side Jiangsu Suning a CSL record 50 million euros when he transferred from Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, is just one of the top players to have left the game’s major stage to play in China. Other new arrivals include Brazilian midfielder Ramires, who was acquired from the English Premier League club Chelsea, and Argentinian striker Ezequiel Lavezzi, who arrived from the French league giant Paris Saint-Germain.
The league’s spending spree could have been even bigger: England captain Wayne Rooney recently revealed to British media that he had turned down “an astronomical offer” to join CSL stalwart Shanghai SIPG.
According to experts, the buying frenzy has highlighted investors’ determination to clean up the game’s image, which was tarnished by corruption scandals in the late 2000s, while promoting their own businesses on an ideal marketing platform.
Research conducted by Vning Media Brand Consulting Agency showed that the average attendance for each match at CSL games rose to 22,000 last year, the sixth-highest in the world, while the total audience for televised games was about 400 million.
Adam Zhang, founder of the Key-Solution Sports Consultancy, said the national strategy to grow the sports industry amid downward economic pressure has motivated non-sports companies, such as Suning, the country’s leading electronics retailer, and China’s biggest e-commerce company Alibaba, to come onside.
Last year, Suning bought the CSL side Jiangsu from Sainty Corp for a reported 500 million yuan ($77 million). The move came after the e-commerce giant Alibaba, founded by Jack Ma, purchased a 50 percent stake in five-time CSL champion Guangzhou Evergrande in 2014 for 1.2 billion yuan.
Mark Dreyer, who runs the website China Sports Insider, sees the foreign influx as a positive factor, but remains cautious about substantial long-term progress. “The new-found interest from fans around the world is certainly putting Chinese football on the global map. If－and it’s a big ‘if’－the growth of the domestic league, combined with grassroots development, can really translate into the long-term improvement of Chinese players then China could become a force in world football 20 years from now,” the British national said.
While the CSL is using big-name imports to lure fans, its hoops counterpart, the Chinese Basketball Association, is also attracting huge attention with its 2015-16 Season Finale Series between Liaoning and Sichuan, which tipped off on Friday.
All 4,000 tickets for the opener at Liaoning’s home stadium were sold out within half an hour on March 7, while all 9,000 tickets for Sichuan’s first home game on Wednesday were snapped up in less than three hours.
The huge demand for tickets underscores the growing demand for high-quality professional sports and athletic performances as a cultural product against a backdrop that in recent years has seen consumption of urban sports shift from tangible sporting goods to fitness services and recreational activities.
As China aims to boost its sports industry as a new economic driver, the development of performance-related sports businesses, fitness services and the trade in media rights must be accelerated, according to observers and insiders from the country’s top political advisory body.
Former NBA star Yao Ming, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, senses that the shift is happening.
“Sport plays different roles at different times. Olympic gold medals used to inspire our national teams, but now people consume sport as a cultural product or service in the forms of a great basketball game, a yoga course or a skiing trip. Our emphasis should develop along with demand so we can develop the industry follow-up,” Yao said, during this year’s annual session of the CPPCC.
However, at present, most sports consumption in China remains focused on tangible goods, such as sportswear and equipment, while very little is spent on businesses related to participation, such as ticketing, fitness services and merchandising, which hold greater potential.
According to analysis by the General Administration of Sport of China, almost 80 percent of the revenue of the nation’s sports industry comes from the manufacturing sector, while less than 20 percent is contributed by fitness services and professional sports-entertainment businesses. That’s far lower than in the United States.
“The structure of our sports industry should be improved and geared toward more intangible consumption,” said Ma Jilong, an official at the GASC Sporting Equipment Center and a CPPCC National Committee member.
In October 2014, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, issued a plan to grow the country’s sports market, aiming to increase the industry’s total revenue to 5 trillion yuan by 2025, when it is predicted to account for about 1 percent of GDP, compared with 0.6 percent in 2013.
According to statistics supplied by the administration in 2014, China’s sports industry contributed added-value of 404 billion yuan to the total gross output of 1.36 trillion yuan.
Ma said the administration and its affiliated event-administration centers should relinquish a greater number of rights to private companies, non-governmental organizations and self-managing entities within the professional leagues, such as CSL Co and the CBA League Council, to develop the sports market more freely.
“This is how we can unburden enterprises to the utmost and add vitality to resources, so a wider range of products and services can be created through a market-oriented approach to meet public demand,” he said.