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  • Writer's pictureDenis Green

China Sports Business Weekly | 14th February

As the coronavirus continues to impact sporting events across China and parts of Asia, we look at some of the key cancellations & postponements, as well as an increase in online fan engagement.

From The Top interview 1: Rowan Simons, Chairman of China ClubFootball FC, discussing the impact and possible implications the coronavirus is having on China’s sports industry and what the key learnings were from the SARS outbreak in 2003.

From The Top interview 2: Simon Chadwick, Director of Eurasian Sport | Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry, discussing the potential global impact on the sports industry and what international organisations could and should be doing to help.

Top Industry News

1) Chinese Grand Prix Postponed Originally scheduled for April 17-19, the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc with China’s sporting calendar, with the 2020 Chinese Grand Prix the latest event to fall victim. Grand Prix promoter, Juss Sports Group, requested the postponement following discussions with the Federation of Automobile and Motorcycle Sports of People's Republic of China (CAMF) and Shanghai Administration of Sports. Read more on F1 (English) and Xinhua (Chinese)

Mailman Take: The Chinese Grand Prix has been ever-present on the F1 circuit since 2004 while continuously growing in popularity. Last year’s Shanghai meet marked the 1000th F1 race as tickets sold out early. There’s a real conundrum now for F1 to identify a weekend in an already packed season to reschedule this race. Rumours last year swirled around China hosting two races in 2020. Could it, unfortunately, end up with none...

2) Fan Engagement Grows as Digital Sports Community Keeps Active

There was a 20% increase in total engagement during Chinese New Year and the coronavirus period, compared to the same 3-week time period prior. There was also a huge 79% increase in follower growth.

Mailman Take: With the majority of the sports community stuck at home with limited opportunities to engage in person with friends, the digital platforms have seen a sharp rise in activity. It's a great opportunity for sports brands to communicate messages of support, and even beyond with fun ways to stay active and engaged through social content.

3) SportAccord Moves Beijing Event The SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit 2020 will not take place in Beijing due to the Novel Coronavirus outbreak in China. Read the official statement on SportAccord

From The Top

Rowan Simons, Chairman of China ClubFootball FC.

1. The coronavirus is having a major effect on sporting events in China. What was the biggest impact on this industry during the SARS outbreak?

During SARS, we also saw the cancellation of professional events, but the biggest impact was on grassroots sport as people shied away from any personal contact out of fear. As SARS only become contagious once symptoms were showing, the official advice was to get out and about and try to keep fit. Despite that, I remember Beijing TV came out to film ClubFootball playing a match at a deserted training field in north Beijing, later reporting that we were the only organization they found still playing a team sport in the whole city.

2. Do you see similarities here in terms of events being canceled/postponed, are how serious will the implications be?

There are similarities as well as differences. All upcoming major events are being cancelled or postponed and the implications are much more serious. At the time of SARS, China was still not a major destination for international sporting events but, particularly since the 2008 Olympics, China has been a very active bidder to host big events across all sports, so there are many more events affected now. For grassroots, there is a big difference in that COVID-19 can be transmitted before any symptoms are evident, so there is a total cancellation of all group activities. Again, there are many more people engaged in various sports now, think marathons, so the implications are much more serious for organizers at all levels.

3. What advice would you give to organisers of these events who see China as a key international market?

The SARS outbreak taught some very good lessons for the international sports industry. As soon as this current crisis is over, it is crucial to return to China as soon as practical. In 2003, Real Madrid played in Beijing soon after the SARS crisis, unveiling David Beckham as their newest "galactico". The event was a huge success, not only giving the public a chance to enjoy the sporting spectacle, but also endearing the club and stars to fans as true friends of China. Liverpool were also scheduled to play in sister-city Shanghai later that summer, but they cancelled the match, drawing fierce criticism from the government, media and fans. They compounded this anger by going on to play their match in Hong Kong, which was one of the epicentres of the crisis. Memories are long.

4. What should international sports organisations be doing, both local & international, in order to support the fight against the virus?

At times like this, it is very important that organizations show their support for the Chinese people. Messages from senior officials and star athletes will be welcomed, especially if they can add phrases like "Jia you Zhongguo!" (Come on, China!) in Chinese. As during SARS, this is also the time for large organizations to show their commitment by making donations to relevant medical and charitable causes. During SARS, and subsequent tragedies like the Sichuan earthquakes, this process quickly turned negative as the media started shaming those who were perceived not to have donated enough, or too late. The dangers in the social media era are even greater. Do not wait for this pressure to build, take a proactive stance and act sincerely in showing solidarity.

5. What can sports clubs/communities do while children are at home and unable to go out and play sport?

This is a major concern as most community clubs are very small and with very limited financial resources. Many that are reliant on just one or two school contracts will not survive this crisis. ClubFootball is one of the biggest junior operators and our hands are tied too, with schools extending their holidays and a total ban on group training activities. We have turned online and are producing and distributing training videos that kids can use to keep up their football skills during the enforced break. These are proving very popular and show that we remain committed to our members and the wider football-playing public. Here is a link to one of the videos on WeChat.

6. How long do you expect until we see sports events taking place in China again?

The sixty million dollar question. Nobody knows yet and I do not want to be the one making optimistic or pessimistic predictions. That said, it should be remembered that there will be a serious time lag between the official end of the crisis, which is likely to be a full two weeks with no new infections recorded, and the resumption of normal activities. Planning for major international events takes months, if not years, so it will be a long time before the schedule returns to normal. I can say that ClubFootball will resume our work at grassroots as soon as we get permission. There will be massive reserves of pent up energy to be released and sport will be one of the key ways that people will mark a return to their normal lives.

Simon Chadwick, Director of Eurasian Sport | Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry.

1. As the coronavirus continues to negatively impact China's sports industry, what impacts will be felt outside of China? For any sport organisation engaged in or with China, especially if it requires either movement within the country or across its borders, the threat of disruption to their activities is tangible and significant. Cancellation of the Shanghai F1 GP is an obvious example of this. Does it present opportunities? it does, though few have taken these opportunities. For instance, there have been few, if any, offers of support or statements of solidarity coming from the likes of European football clubs.

2. China is such a key market for many international teams, leagues, players, and brands. How important is it the world remains positive about China and not to be put off by the current situation? The current health issues have exposed how distant many international sport stakeholders are from China, in terms of both geographic distance and cultural understanding. Furthermore, it appears that many are rather too dependent upon second-hand information suggesting that most don't have people on the ground to provide accurate insight and first-hand experience.

3. Are we likely to see a change in strategy from international companies towards China in the next 1-2 years? If so, what kind of changes? I suspect that, once the global hysteria subsides, it will be back to business as usual for many. In one sense, this is the way it should be; however, in another, the virus issues should enforce a period of analysis and change amongst stakeholders. If they are going to successfully engage in business in China, then they need to better understand the nuances and complexities of working there.

4. In what ways can international organisations use this opportunity as a positive move regarding China? Right now it's all negative. If sports organisations are serious about China as a market, then they should be making public statements of support for the country and for the ways in which it is trying to address issues and challenges posed by the virus. My sense is that most organisations don't understand that they should be making statements, but some may actually be afraid to do so (again betraying an absence of deep understanding about the country).

5. What will the long-term implications be? Will it blow over soon enough or can we expect some serious lasting damage? We have been here before, with SARS, and it all blew over. However, what the coronavirus should do is to bring about changes in the way sport approaches the Chinese market. Understanding, for example, crisis management and contingency planning in this context appear to be imperative. But so too do issues of, for example, communication, stakeholder engagement, and event planning. There are some really important lessons for sport hidden within the current crisis. One hopes that most in sport will go looking for these lessons and develop management practice on the basis of them.

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