The Eastern Frontier: Where did the Chinese Super League Come From and Why Should We Care?

By | February 29, 2016

The English Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Serie A and… the Chinese Super League? It may be an exaggeration to claim that the Chinese Super League is on par with those other leagues, but, whereas 5 years ago, any comparison would have been ludicrous, it is now not such a stretch to believe that the Chinese league might catch up to its European counterparts in the not too distant future.

There are a number of reasons that the Chinese league is rapidly rising. Ultimately, though, the Chinese are not reinventing the wheel; they are simply going toe to toe with their European counterparts. Despite a lack of TV deals, UEFA Champions League Football, or huge crowds, these Chinese clubs found the financial clout to buy some of the best players in the world. Guangzhou Evergrande was the first club to take the leap, and they are now the premier club in all of Asia. They boast talents like Robinho, Paulinho and Goulart. Their coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, is a World Cup winning coach. Their next mission is to win the Club World Cup. But the Guangzhou club is not alone. Shanghai SIPG has Asamaoah Gyan and Elkeson and is eyeing a move for Robin van Persie. Shanghai Shenhua has Fredy Guarin, Demba Ba, and Tim Cahill. Jiangsu Suning just bought Ramires from Chelsea and stole Alex Teixeira from under Liverpool’s noses. Guangzhou Evergrande just paid 42 million euros for Colombian superstar Jackson Martinez.

And although these clubs lacked TV deals and huge crowds in the past, things are changing just as rapidly off of the pitch as they are on the pitch. Last year saw an average attendance of over 22,000 people, which is a statistic that is on par with the averages in Serie A and Ligue 1. A league official told the Guardian that this season’s attendance average will be over 25,000, and why not? The improvement on the pitch is certainly worthy of greater support off of it. The same official boldly declared that by 2018, the Super League will be the third most-watched soccer league in the world, behind the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.

This possibility is not as far-fetched as it seems. In 2015, the Chinese broadcasters spent $9 million to broadcast Super League games. In 2016 alone, that number will jump to over $200 million as part of a $1.25 billion package over the next five years.   Guangzhou Evergrande’s owners raised the value of the club from $15 million to $380 million in just four years. The club is already averaging an attendance over 45,000 people. Indeed, the Chinese Super League has no ceiling.

However, equally important to the Chinese is making strides on the domestic front as well. The overall reconstruction of the league has been strongly encouraged by Xi Jinping, who is the President of China and a massive soccer fan. The Chinese’s lone involvement in the World Cup was in 2002, where they failed to score a goal (CNN). Their lack of success has many reasons, one of which being that most parents don’t want their (usually one) child to pursue soccer when he/she could instead get a “real” job. However, with help from Real Madrid, Guangzhou has supposedly built the nicest soccer academy in the world in an attempt to raise the domestic talent in hopes of one day winning the World Cup. Many high ranking officials believe that the ultimate decider of whether the Chinese can compete with other European superpowers will be determined by their national team’s success in the coming years.

Ultimately, other than the Champions League, the Chinese Super League has every major ingredient to become a successful world power on and off the field. As the Guardian explains, “There’s money, the political will, the infrastructure, the passion, the ambition, and plenty of potential. Talk in Europe of whether the spending is sustainable is misguided.   This is just one of many examples of the world’s second largest economy flexing its financial muscles.” And with players like Mario Balotelli, Steven Pienaar, and even Michael Carrick being linked with moves to China, who knows where the Chinese Super League will ultimately rank amongst the world’s best?


One thought on “The Eastern Frontier: Where did the Chinese Super League Come From and Why Should We Care?

  1. Leonard Giarrano

    I liked this blog post because it gave me insight into something in soccer that I had no idea was developing. For somebody who mainly keeps up with international competitions and squads in four-year cycles with the Men’s and Women’s World Cups, I probably would not have learned much about the “Chinese Super League,” let alone that it has apparently spent more on players than Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s Primera Division and France’s Ligue 1 combined in its January signing period[1], apparently spending $54 million on Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira[2].

    David does a very good job of detailing which household name European and South American players are being seduced by the CSL and reporting the stacks and stacks of money the CSL is offering to reel these players in—some of them for well above their market value to capture them while they’re still in their playing prime. However with all due respect, I’m a little skeptical that this league will ever be able to buy its way into catching up “to its European counterparts.”

    That said, I don’t deny that the CSL’s teams are attracting better talent than before through well-negotiated contracts with favorable bottom lines and salaries or that China is working to develop better domestic stars by partnering with European teams to create model soccer academies. I further won’t deny that attendance levels are CSL games are also on the rise, increasing from 11,000 fans on average in 2004 to about 22,000[3]. But something feels amiss.

    Part of it stems from my general skepticism of large-scale, “unprecedented”-style spending by the Chinese government and corporations. Given how skyscrapers are erected with building rates of three floors per day for the Mini Sky City tower in Changsha, a south-central city in China[4] and then promptly end up with vast sections and whole floors of vacant, unfilled business and residential spaces, I have higher-than-average thresholds of belief for such money-infusion-boosted growth.

    With respect to the recent investment and growth in soccer, encouraged by President Xi Jinping who is apparently a big soccer fan[5], I find it hard to believe that the CSL could ever come close to approaching the talent levels or popularity of the European leagues. Following our lecture discussion on how the US’s MLS exists with respect to European leagues, it seems much more likely the CSL would fall into this fate and be a place for players close to retirement, young talent that wants to grow in smaller ponds with less pressure, or eccentric—even talented—players like Croatian midfielder Darko Matic who just love being abroad in China (Matic is a polyglot who has said he just feels welcome and loved by the people around him in China). These streams of players (in addition to those who can be lured away from Europe by Chinese offers that simply have bottom lines with too many zeroes to pass up) certainly add great talent to CSL teams while connections with other leagues, teams and coaches help build development programs to bring out better players of Chinese origin, but to me, it seems unlikely the CSL could even pass something like the MLS.

    The MLS leaves players who come out of Europe and South America closer to home and with less of a culture shock than China does. While the contracts may not be as lucrative right now compared to what CSL teams are willing to offer, such spending on their part is hardly sustainable even with President Xi’s interest in the game. Finally, the CSL seems to have no plans of doing away with some form of its 4+1 model that limits teams to having only four truly foreign players. Any player coming from one of the more established leagues and successful teams who wants to develop their skills or happily finish their career seems unlikely to find a good player experience, and it seems that the CSL would have to have something game-changing in its design or in the global player market to overcome that initial hump of talent and league-personality differential.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *