By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Chinese investment in European soccer is no short-term phenomenon and the opportunities it offers for the continent’s clubs are “extraordinary”, according to the CEO of Inter Milan, one of the latest big names to come under Chinese ownership.
Chinese corporation Suning Holdings bought a majority stake in Italy's Inter in June, the first Serie A club to come under Chinese ownership, following a series of investments and takeovers, particularly in England on the back of a presidential decree that encouraged widespread participation in the world’s most popular sport.
“There is definitely an environment that encourages investment in soccer now,” Inter CEO Michael Bolingbroke told the Leaders in Sport Business Summit on Wednesday.
“There is a big drive for health in China and soccer is one of the favorite sports of the president. China needs know-how, so they can run leagues as successfully as we do, while in return the opportunities for clubs are enormous.”
Suning, predominantly a white goods retailer, has a $40 billion turnover and Bolingbroke says that having a partner with such an established reach is key to clubs making real inroads.
Previously many European clubs have sometimes limited their bids to crack the world’s most populous country to the odd friendly and some replica shirt promotion but now they are taking things far more seriously.
Inter are about to open an office in the Nanjing, a city of over eight million people and HQ of Suning, and will employ 12 staff.
“We needed a Chinese partner to give us access to what is a vast market,” said Bolingbroke, who was at the heart of Manchester United's push into Asia as CEO of the English Premier League club he left to join Inter in 2014.
“They already connect with customers and they are our fans – that creates that bridge that Europeans struggle with.
“We’re the fourth most popular club in China but there is enough for everyone. But you need a partner and we have one who own a club in the Chinese Super League, which is a great help as well.
“It is very difficult to keep a permanent brand presence but if your get it right the prize is extraordinary – you have access to 1.3 billion people.”
While Inter and others are reaping immediate benefits from Chinese investment, already seen in the club’s transfer spending, China’s eye is also on the long game.
Top European clubs are proving canny investments but the flow of knowledge and experience in the other direction is just as important.
“The President has said they want to host the World Cup in 2030 and win it in 2050 – there aren’t many countries looking that far ahead,” said Bolingbroke.
“That’s the extent of the vision and to be a part of that is an extraordinary opportunity for us and for European football.”
(Editing by Mark Potter)