China goes global with sports sponsorships

“Whose that man flying around the stadium?”

It was a hot, sticky August night in Beijing. My taxi had crawled across the capital evading assiduous police roadblocks. Crowds everywhere spilt onto the streets. Eventually, I arrived at a party in a hutong courtyard near Tiananmen Square to watch the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony.

As movie director Zhang Yimou’s spectacular show neared its pyrotechnic climax, an athletic figure appeared on screen. He was, in the words of the official 2008 Olympic report, “leaping around the perimeter of the stadium’s roof and lighting the Olympic cauldron.”

Beyond China, television audiences began asking the same question.

The flying man was Li Ning. A gold medal-winning gymnast at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he later founded China’s foremost sportswear company, the eponymous Li-Ning.

His aerial athletics that night represented one of history’s most audacious acts of guerrilla marketing. Li Ning was not among the 12 official Olympic partners, which included Chinese computer maker Lenovo. Yet it stole the headlines, and the commercial plaudits.

That image of the Flying Man has recurred in my mind in recent weeks while watching the delayed UEFA 2020 football tournament.

Eagle-eyed fans will have noticed that four of the official tournament sponsors are Chinese. Occupying prominent pitch-side positions alongside a Dutch beer, a Middle Eastern airline and American soda drink, have been AntChain, Hisense, Vivo and TikTok.

Vivo is one of the Chinese brands sponsoring the delayed UEFA 2020 football tournament.

All four companies owe a huge debt of thanks to Li Ning for memorably kickstarting the modern era of Chinese international sports marketing.

Li Ning didn’t pioneer the alignment of Chinese brands at major sports events, though. Four years before the Beijing Games, state petrochemical firm Sinopec secured title rights for the debut 2004 Chinese F1 Grand Prix, held in Shanghai.

Fossil fuels may not be as sexy as sportswear, but Sinopec received government approval for two reasons. Firstly, it was expanding its international operations. Secondly, China did not count many headline brands that would have resonated with race watchers worldwide.

It’s now 13 years since Li Ning forged an elevated pathway for Chinese firms to build their brand by associating themselves with the elite sporting endeavour. Prominent Chinese sports sponsorships are now visible at many major tournaments, from the FIFA Women's World Cup to the Indian Premier League.

Many tennis fans worldwide have entered the name Luzhoulaojiao and its 1573 brand into search engines since its logo began appearing courtside at the Australian Open tennis tournament in 2019. The Luzhou-based firm makes baijiu Chinese liqueur, and signed the largest tennis tournament sponsorship deal by a Chinese company in 2018.

Luzhou-based liquor firm Luzhoulaojiao has drawn more global attention since the brand started appearing courtside at the Australian Open. Image: Facebook/Luzhoulaojiao 

Not all Chinese forays into the sporting world have proved successful. Chinese companies spent USD1.8 billion acquiring stakes in more than 12 European teams between 2015 and 2017, notes the New York Times. Some of these have foundered after the initial euphoria.

A good example is Dalian-based Wanda Group, which began a buying spree of international companies at the turn of the last decade. In 2016, it secured naming rights to the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, the new 68,000-seat home of storied Spanish club Atletico Madrid. The stadium hosted the 2019 Champions League final, between Liverpool and Spurs.

In May 2021, just as Atletico Madrid won La Liga for the first time since 2014, the club announced it was seeking a new stadium sponsor. Debt-ridden Wanda had already been forced by the Chinese government to sell off its global acquisitions, These included AMC Entertainment, World Triathlon and a 17 percent stake in Atletico Madrid. Under strict regulatory scrutiny in China, Wanda is unable to renew its contract which expires next season.

The past decade of hits and misses may represent just the beginning. More Chinese companies are likely to seek a route to glory via sports as they globalise their commercial reach, and launch IPOs on international stock exchanges.

Once completed, they may invest some of those IPO funds into brand-building through sporting association, just as Western brands have been doing for decades.

So what do we know about the four Euro 2020 sponsors from China:

  • AntChain

Although the name of this blockchain solutions firm is unfamiliar, its eco-system is not. AntChain is part of Ant Group – parent company of the AliPay mobile payment brand – which was spun off from Alibaba Group, both of which were founded by Jack Ma.

Alibaba is positioning itself among the global sports marketing elite. In 2017, the Hangzhou-based digital economy monolith signed a sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee through 2028. Alibaba says it is “committed to helping the IOC transform the Olympic Games for the digital era”.

AntChain is part of Ant Group, which was spun off from Alibaba Group, founded by Jack Ma.

Alibaba took its bow at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It will use this summer’s Tokyo Olympics to further leverage its status as one of 12 worldwide Olympic partners.

But perhaps its biggest commercial splash will be on home turf at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. It will be the only titular sponsor from China of the event – which will see Beijing become the first city to host the summer and winter Olympics.

Further down the Olympic pecking order, several Chinese companies have also secured sponsorships. The list of Beijing 2022 official partners includes Air China, Bank of China and sportswear brand Anta. An additional roster of 11 official sponsors includes Tsingtao beer, Yum China and Qi-Anxin – which revels in the title of Official Cyber Security Services and Anti-Virus Software Sponsor of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Beijing.

  • Vivo

Ranked among the world’s top 10 smartphone manufacturers, Vivo is buildings its sports marketing portfolio. In 2017, it signed a four-year deal with the Board of Control for Cricket in India as title sponsor of the Indian Premier League (IPL) from 2018 to 2022.

However, Vivo stood down ahead of the 2020 edition as a result of anti-Chinese sentiment in India following a deadly border skirmish between the two armies. Vivo was replaced at short notice by Indian fantasy sports platform Dream11, but was restored as lead sponsor for the currently postponed 2021 edition of the IPL.

Interestingly, Vivo also bid in 2017 to be the shirt sponsor for the Indian men’s cricket team, but was outbid by smartphone stablemate, Oppo. Both brands are owned by Dongguan-based conglomerate BBK Electronics. Oppo subsequently exited the contract in 2019, to be replaced by Indian edtech app Byju’s. Vivo will be an official sponsor of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar.

  • Hisense

Founded in 1969 in the northern coastal city of Qingdao – which hosted the sailing events for the 2008 Beijing Olympics – household appliance maker Hisense is the most established global brand of the quartet. It is using the Euro 2020 partnership to promote its ULED TV range, and has created a colourful tournament wallchart which fans can download from its website. Hisense was an official sponsor of the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Russia, and extended its contract for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Hisense's sponsorship of the UEFA includes a Skill of the Day, among other things. Image: Facebook/Hisense Global

  • TikTok

The mobile video-sharing app (known as Douyin in China) created by Beijing-based Bytedance is arguably the most talked about of the four brands. TikTok is, after all, available in over 150 countries. Its global march probably didn’t need the free publicity granted by President Trump’s attempts to force a sale of its US operation in 2020 – but the copious news coverage did its consumer appeal little harm. In February 2021, it was confirmed as the first digital entertainment platform to sponsor a UEFA tournament. TikTok says the deal will help it become “a home for football fans to share their passion during the tournament.”

 - Asia Media Centre