IMG Sees ‘Tremendous’ Sponsor Interest in Chinese Soccer

IMG Worldwide Inc., the sports agency that this month announced a marketing agreement with China’s top professional soccer league, has started setting up meetings with possible U.S. corporate sponsors.

“We’ve just begun the process, but there’s a tremendous interest from companies in the U.S.,” Adam Zhu, the head of IMG’s operations in China, said in an interview in Beijing yesterday. Meetings to discuss possible sponsorships have been held with “major consumer product companies,” with IMG also planning a promotional tour for the league, Zhu said, without identifying which companies had participated in talks.

Foreign companies including Yum! Brands Inc., Daimler AG and Samsung Electronics Co. have used athletes to market their products in China, which has grown to become the world’s largest consumer of cars, mobile phones and computers. IMG’s agreement with China’s soccer league comes as the nation’s most-popular sport emerges from an anti-corruption campaign that jailed former players and referees for taking bribes.

“We saw the opportunities here,” Zhu said of IMG’s agreement with the Chinese Super League.

IMG, which represents athletes including Maria Sharapova and Ernie Els, said Oct. 17 that its venture with state broadcaster China Central Television had signed a 10-year agreement with the Chinese league to attract corporate sponsors and advise on training of players and management of clubs. The venture with CCTV has also promoted events including the China Open tennis tournament and Volvo Ocean Race sailing.

Past Involvement

The sports agency had previously helped manage China’s top league from 1994 to 2004, after having generate the funding needed to start it, according to the company. IMG’s involvement ended after it decided that the league in 2004 was “a little bit overvalued,” Zhu said. The Chinese football association’s desire to have a Chinese company manage the league also contributed to the exit, he said.

IMG’s return comes after a committee formed by 12 ministry-level government agencies began a crackdown on graft in the sport in 2009. That campaign led in June this year to two former directors of the Chinese Football Administrative Center, the sport’s top government regulator, being each sentenced to 10 1/2 years in prison for taking bribes.

“We’ve done tremendous due diligence politically, financially and people wise,” Zhu said. “We’re going to help improve the system.”

In addition to sponsorships, IMG is also looking at how the Chinese Super League can boost revenue through online media and has met English Premier League Chief Executive Officer Richard Scudamore to discuss the league’s development, Zhu said.

Didier Drogba

Another boon for the sport has been an infusion of players and coaches from abroad. Didier Drogba in June agreed to a contract to play for Shanghai Shenhua, joining former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka. Marcello Lippi, who coached Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team, joined Guangzhou Evergrande in May.

Xi Jinping, forecast to succeed Hu Jintao next month as head of China’s Communist Party before becoming president in March, is also “a big fan” of soccer, providing further support for the league, Zhu said.

“It’s good news for the football industry,” Zhu said of Xi’s interest in the sport. “There will be more investment in this area and more people will get involved and more importantly, there will be more conducive policies developed to support the industry.”

— With assistance by John Liu

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