Bayern Munich Heads for China in Search of Sponsors, Support

  • European soccer teams tapping sport’s popularity in Asia
  • Chinese clubs’ spending ‘completely exaggerated,’ CEO says

Rummenigge during the opening of Bayern's first China office in Shanghai on March 22.

Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

German soccer champion Bayern Munich has become the first foreign club to open an office in mainland China as it seeks new sponsorship and merchandising deals in a nation where the sport has become a national priority.

“It’s the right time to come to China,” the team’s Chief Executive Officer Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in an interview in Shanghai, where the office was officially opened on Wednesday. “We will come here constantly.”

Bayern, headed for a fifth straight German soccer championship, says it has 136 million fans in China, more than Germany’s entire population. The club isn’t alone in targeting Asia’s soccer-loving public: rivals like Manchester United and Barcelona have a presence in Hong Kong, where they’re looking to leverage their global popularity to secure sponsorships.

Rummenigge, who cut the ribbons for the new office along side Shen Lei, secretary-general of the Shanghai Football Association and Peter Rothen, Germany’s consul-general in Shanghai, recalled his first interaction with Chinese fans five years ago. About 5,000 people clad in Bayern’s red-and-white colors serenaded the team in German when it arrived at the airport on its first Chinese tour in 2012. “I was very impressed,” Rummenigge said.

In recent years, China has emerged from being a relative backwater to one of the biggest players in the global soccer economy. Spurred by President Xi Jinping’s wish for the nation to become a soccer super power, leading companies and some of China’s wealthiest individuals are plowing billions into the sport, paying record fees to lure top talent to clubs, building training complexes and buying foreign teams. Media rights for the domestic league and foreign competition are now some of the richest in soccer.

Rummenigge, a former striker on Germany’s national team, said the reason for focusing on China was twofold: to create an additional audience for existing sponsors such as Adidas AG and Audi, while hunting for new local sponsors and helping the country develop its own stock of talented players. China’s national team hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2006 and is 86th in FIFA’s rankings.

Vast Sums

Spending vast sums on foreign imports has been one of the most-eye catching aspects of China’s soccer renaissance. Last year, China Super League teams spent $451.3 million to import players, up from $168 million in 2015. Rummenigge described the spending as “completely exaggerated” and unlikely to help fuel Xi’s dream of having a successful national team.

“I personally don’t believe what they are doing is the right way,” he said. “I believe they should invest much more in talent, instead of second-class, or older stars. In the long-term, the investment in talent in the youth will be more fruitful.”

Bayern plans to open a second soccer school in China later in the year, after the first one in the northeastern port city of Qingdao began operating earlier in 2017.

Counting Adidas, Audi and Allianz SE as backers at home, Bayern is also on the lookout for sponsorships in China. “What we look for is long-term, sustainable and exclusive partnerships,” Rummenigge said, without elaborating.

Bayern has been selling merchandise such as sportswear and mugs on Tmall.com, a popular e-commerce site owned by Alibaba Group Holding, since May 2015.

Office outposts like the one in Shanghai also serve as operational bases for increasingly regular tours to Asia. Bayern is playing two off-season games in China before moving on to Singapore. It is also planning trips for its women’s and youth teams.

— With assistance by Jing Yang De Morel, and Tariq Panja

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