Schalke 04 have been coming to China every summer for three consecutive years. Last month, they were here again, visiting Kunshan, Beijing and Langfang where they played a friendly with Southampton FC in Kunshan and another match with Hebei China Fortune FC in Langfang.
But the results of the matches were not important as their focus was on collaborations. In April, Schalke 04 struck a strategic collaboration with Hebei China Fortune on youth training programs. Under the partnership, Schalke 04 will work on the youth training program’s content and strategy developments, send coaches and scouts from Germany to train more local Chinese football talents using the Bundesliga-level youth training system. Actually one of their main tasks of the visit this year was to further develop this collaboration.
Marco Fladrich, Head of Football School FC Schalke 04, told Yutang Sports their youth training collaboration with Hebei China Fortune currently focuses on the U15 to U19 teams and it is the first time Schalke 04 has worked with professional football clubs in China on youth training.
Their involvement in the Chinese youth football development started in 2015. In that year, the club went to Kunshan and opened a football training camp there. After several years in this market, they were aware of the fact that schools play an important role in developing football at grassroots level in China, which is different from the European model. Therefore, as of now, they have partnered with 10 schools from Kunshan to develop youth football training and in April launched the Schalke 04 FC Kunshan School Football Developing Union.
The partnership with Hebei China Fortune was the beginning of the club in extending their collaborations with professional Chinese football clubs.
From the perspective of Marco Fladrich, there are elements to increasing the club’s influence in the Chinese market through their youth training efforts, and it is more about bringing one of the most characteristic German youth training systems to China, helping China to build a suitable training system.
Alexander Jobst, Managing Board Marketing, added that the financial aspect is not their main focus when it comes to youth training in China. Schalke 04 can offer support for China in becoming a football nation and in this process Schalke 04 gets credibility and Chinese fans. This is one of their ways of attracting Chinese fans.
The results are promising with Jobst saying when they first came in 2016 there were around a few hundred thousand Schalke fans in China but now in 2018 the figure is close to 4 million and these fans follow the team every day.
What’s more, Schalke admits that the team’s on-field performances are a major influence on its fan base. According to some reports, in all German football clubs, the number of Chinese fans of Schalke 04 comes just after Bayern Munich and Dortmund. When we asked about this, Jobst explained it is partly because Munich and Dortmund perform very successfully on the pitch in the last few years, which grabs the attention of fans easily. They have been growing in the past few years too (ranking second in the Bundesliga last season) and they hope to narrow the gap in fan bases between Bayern Munich and Dortmund.
Having a Chinese player in the first team will help the club do some natural marketing in China. Frankly, it is something a Chinese fan would like to see. However, this is not a path Schalke has taken or will take. Although they would like to and believe there will, one day, have Chinese players in the club, right now they have not found a Chinese player who can help with the success of the first team. Jobst says they choose players based on performances, not just for marketing.
Similarly, Jobst says Chinese football leagues should also start with youth players, as opposed to spending too much on bringing in many high-profile overseas football players.
Developing football should start from the youth set-up. “To establish training, scouting, medical and psychological treatment.” he said. “That’s why China and Chinese Football Association is developing youth in the country.”
A kind of confidence can be felt from the conversation regarding Schalke’s approach and future in China. They seem to be very determined in taking a steady and consistent approach in China-- starting from basic things such as what can help to build a larger fan base, and then gradually grow stronger and become international.
They will stick to the goal of attracting more fans in China over the following years and this could be realized through social media, youth training and summer tours according to Jobst.
“The moment Schalke becomes more and more popular and have more fans, we become a global brand and a brand that is likeable in China. That is our main objective.” said Jobst. “We can do this through our digital presence, support of Chinese youth football development and by coming here three years in a row organizing fan and media events”.
“We want to be close and very transparent to the fans. Different to other teams.” concluded Jobst.
Proofread by Raymond Fitzpatrick