The Chinese Super League (CSL) becomes the largest spender in this winter transfer window after clubs spent €331 million on players, 32% more than the English Premier League. Now the CSL is becoming a more competitive league with the introduction of the likes of Lavezzi, Gervinho, Ramires and Jackson Martinez, all from top European clubs.
There were reports saying Lavezzi turned down the chance to join Premier League giants Manchester United and Chelsea before signing a lucrative deal with newly promoted CSL club Hebei China Fortune. And Hebei China Fortune will reportedly pay the Argentine €15 million per year under the contract, making him the highest paid player in the CSL.
However, will the likes of Lavezzi significantly help improve the CSL brand if we leave aside the attention and the attendances that he will drive in the coming season?
We can hardly find an answer to this as the league once had Didier Drogba and still has big names such as Demba Ba, Ramires and Gervinho. Although it is hoped that these star players will drastically increase the competitiveness and influence of the league, the CSL is now seen by many as more a buyer than an investor. Many worry that these proven foreign players will affect the growth of domestic talents, who would accordingly get less playing time.
Off the pitch, the CSL clubs still need to take time learning how to capitalize on China’s growing interest in the sport. Even with the dramatically increased TV revenues, the CSL sides will not find it easy balancing their revenue and expenditure in the short-term.
More importantly, branding a club is as important as trying to win a trophy. But CSL clubs have made mistakes in this rapidly growing league. For example, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC, five-time winners of the CSL, were in trouble at the time of the 2015 season AFC Champions League Final. On that occasion they deliberately replaced their shirt sponsorship without any agreement from official sponsor Dofeng Nissan, resulting in criticism and financial losses in the end. That unprofessional move demonstrated how inexperienced that CSL clubs are in terms of branding.
Fortunately, there is also positive news from the league including the RMB8bn broadcasting deal. Hebei China Fortune announced days earlier that the club will give away their shirt sponsorships to non-commercial organizations in their CFA Cup campaign, similar to what FC Barcelona did with UNICEF.
This is something special in building a club and a brand. I’m not advocating CSL clubs to sign non-commercial deals over commercial sponsorships here. But Hebei China Fortune, despite being a newly promoted club, are bringing something new to the CSL off the pitch.