Struggling soccer still biggest draw
By Chen Xiangfeng (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-11 11:20

Believe it or not, the scandal-plagued Chinese Super League (CSL) remains the biggest and richest of the country's all-pro leagues, according to the latest annual financial report from CSL Company.

The firm, in charge of the CSL's marketing, said the league reaped 150 million yuan ($22 million) in sponsorship from the 2008-2009 season.

Though the league has struggled with matching fixing and gambling allegations over the past few years, its status as the most popular and lucrative sport in China remains solid.

There were concerns before last season's kickoff that the CSL would be facing tough times after long-time sponsors like Japanese electronic giant Canon and domestic company Hengyuanxiang withdrew their support. Also adding to the misery was the later withdrawal of major sponsor Kingway Bear.

However, thanks to China's huge market, sportswear giant Nike and Italy-based tire producer Pirelli backed the CSL.

Nike signed a 10-year sponsorship contract with the Chinese Football Association (CFA) earlier this year. The deal included uniforms for all CSL teams for the decade as well as footballs and clothes for referees and match officials.

According to the contract, the first year's installment was worth about $15 million in gear and cash.

Pirelli's first year of sponsorship was valued at 45 million yuan ($6.6 million) - all in cash.

The CSL also managed to lure some lesser sponsors.

Although the total sponsorship was not the biggest in the sport's history, it still outweighed those of the basketball and table tennis leagues.

Anta, the major sponsor of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), spends about 20 million yuan ($3 million) every year while the table tennis Super League has gained 6 million yuan ($878,000) from Shandong Electric Power each season from 2001 to 2007.

"The CSL is still the most popular league in terms of spectators and television viewers," said Lu Feng, manager of CSL Company.

"The average number of spectators at each game this season was 16,300. It's the biggest number in the league's history. A total of 160 million people watched CSL throughout the season.

"It's a remarkable number and our sponsors are very satisfied.

"We have now started our sponsorship development for the 2010 season. We are keeping in close contact with our current sponsors as well as potential ones."

Lu does not have to worry too much about CSL's financial gains over the next few years, even if there are no newcomers.

Nike's 10-year sponsorship sees its deal increase by 10 percent year by year while Pirelli's contract still has two years to go.

Still, Lu hopes the CSL will become more healthy and competitive and that the China team will garner better results on the international stage, which he believes is the best way to entice sponsors.

"The CSL will become more attractive to sponsors as long as clubs from the league have good results at the Asian Champions League and our national teams improve their performances," he said.