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Soccer teams avoid China – but should fans care?

Global Times (2013-07-22 P30)
By Mark Dreyer
Asia is the hottest destination for English Premier League clubs this summer, but the Chinese mainland has been left off the list.

Soccer fans in Indonesia, ­Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia have the chance to see one or more of ­Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United play over the holiday period. Four clubs, including Manchester City and Tottenham, are also visiting Hong Kong, but not one of them is venturing further north.

It might seem that European clubs are missing a trick by avoiding the world's biggest market and a country with a huge number of passionate soccer fans. But the truth is that, for now at least, the numbers just don't add up.

Pre-season tours are advertized with marketing guff like "expanding the global brand" and "giving back to the fans," but in reality they are about two things: fitness and money. These teams demand millions to play overseas, and promoters are all too happy to pay upfront if they know that more than 80,000 fans will be paying top dollar to see them, as happened when Manchester United played in Sydney on Saturday.

Attendance in the Chinese ­Super League, China's main domestic ­soccer competition, is healthy, but ticket prices are way below what ­foreign teams charge back home. That leaves Chinese promoters with a stark choice when these teams come to town: Raise ticket prices or fill the stadium, but they can't do both. ­Either way, it doesn't cover the costs needed to bring the visitors there in the first place.

The problems are not just ­limited to English teams. Barcelona ­announced earlier this year it would be playing a game in Shanghai in ­August, but later cancelled those plans, while the Italian Super Cup match between Lazio and Juventus will now be played in Rome rather than in Beijing.

The only solution would be for teams to play in China for a reduced appearance fee. After all, exposure to the Chinese market would surely mean increased income in merchandise sales, right? In reality, though, the ubiquitous presence of fake ­jerseys flooding the Chinese market means clubs are no better off than they were before.

In some ways, it's a blessing. Across the continent, soccer fans are paying through the nose to see a ­collection of reserves, juniors and the odd star player perform little more than a training session. It turns out China is not really losing out at all.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.
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