The Race for China – Boxing
The Chinese sports industry is the fastest growing in the world. Their ambitions are lofty, with President Xi’s targets set at $5 trillion by 2025. The 200% increase in English Premier League viewing figures since their new contract with CCTV is an example of why Chinese fans are the most in demand in the world. Interest is not limited to viewers, however. For sports governing bodies, China represents an unprecedented opportunity to secure the future growth of their sport. The race is on to become the next sport to make it big in China.
How is it going so far?
Boxing in China has not had the smoothest history. It was banned by Chairman Mao in the late 1950s and as a result, its popularity was severely reduced. The first visit by Muhammad Ali in 1979 (postdating the death of Mao) was the first major step in its rejuvenation. He was the first athlete to be jointly invited by the Chinese Olympic Committee and the China Sports Federation. The ban was finally lifted soon after Ali’s second visit in 1989 during which he held training sessions with local children.
The first major success that Chinese boxing enjoyed was the Olympic bronze won by Zou Shiming in Athens. Since then he has gone on to claim consecutive Olympic golds and the WBO flyweight world title. He claimed the belt on the 10th November in Las Vegas, fighting as part of the undercard of Manny Pacquiao. On that night, there were two Chinese boxers fighting. They attracted 100 million viewers in China alone.
Widespread popularisation of boxing has been finding stride recently. In 2015, the Vegas-based Top Rank (who promote both Pacquiao and Shiming) partnered with SECA (a Chinese sports marketing firm). After witnessing the sport garnered by Shiming they launched a new boxing league come TV show, aimed at raising grassroots participation in boxing and giving budding talent an opportunity to get recognised. The first season attracted 177 boxers, with exposure continually growing the league now boasts agreements with CCTV5 and Tencent Sports, two of China’s biggest broadcasters.
Another example is the reality series, Brawl on the Bund. Started in 2015, it centres around the premise of White Collar boxing. Now in its second series, the focus shifted to a live streaming platform and has attracted over 2 million viewers. This update has given boxing much greater exposure among young people in China. Live streaming is absolutely the hottest new trend in with the major platforms, like Tencent’s Penguin, leaving their western equivalents far behind. Online distribution is also much more mobile-friendly and allows on-demand viewing for all consumers, again further expanding its fanbase by slotting in well with the habits and interests of Chinese fans.
Can it Work?
Boxing is a good fit for China in several ways, the bravery, intensity and respect of the sport play well into traditional Chinese values. The undoubted excitement of a good fight has the ability to excite fans and provide perfect material for Chinese style marketing. Additionally, the weight divisions open the sport up to a much greater percentage of the population. China is unlikely to be producing a catalogue of Heavyweight contenders, however, Zou Shiming has already proven that he belongs on the world stage at flyweight.
On the other hand, China’s strict gambling laws do not lend themselves to the traditional betting culture around boxing. Several high profile fights have been held in Macau, where gambling is legal, with both Pacquiao and Shiming featuring multiple times. The Macau fights have all been highly successful, however, if fights can only be held in the very South Eastern tip of such a vast country it will immediately put huge constraints on the sports’ popularity.
Certainly, boxing has the potential, the star power and the core base for success in China. However, there are still considerable hurdles to be overcome and the increasing use of digital channels will undoubtedly play an important role if it is to win over China.