Peter Davis: Can 'Brand Beckham' sell Chinese football?

Goal Asia's Peter Davis considers whether David Beckham's new role as the Chinese Super League's ambassador could bring new-found popularity to the country's domestic game.
David Beckham needs little introduction; he crafted himself at Manchester United and with England’s national team before joining the Galacticos of Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, and AC Milan twice on loan before finding himself at Paris Saint-Germain on a five-month contract. With a CV like that, it’s no wonder that he’s been asked to serve as an ambassador for the Chinese Super League.

The former Three Lions captain is just the latest in a series of famous footballers drawn to China; Lionel Messi has appeared in several Chinese advertisements and has a Sina Weibo (a Twitter-like microblogging service) account along with Wayne Rooney. Cristiano Ronaldo holds an account on Tencent Weibo, a similar site. But while these superstars collect millions of followers, they are not without their skeptics.

"Even if Beckham comes, what exactly is he going to do?" wrote one Sina Weibo user, echoing the thoughts of many confused as to exactly what an ambassador to Chinese football does. Yet it’s a position he’s quite successfully filled in the past.

"With me, it's about football," Beckham said in his introductory press conference after joining the Galaxy in 2006, "I’m coming there to make a difference." He followed through on that promise, packing stadiums and selling uniforms wherever he went. Yet more than merchandise the former Manchester United star sold the idea of football as a legitimate sport in a country dominated by the gridiron, the diamond, the court, and the rink.

But can his on-the-pitch prowess translate into success as an off-the-pitch spokesman? Beckham’s position was constructed by CCTV-IMG, a joint venture between China’s state television network (CCTV) and IMG Worldwide that last October announced a 10-year deal to promote the CSL.

"Today, at a time when the CSL is about to turn 10 and when Chinese football needs help and support most, IMG is coming back,” CSL acting president Zhu Qilin said at the time. Five months later the CCTV-IMG deal has borne fruit in the form of one of the world’s most well-known players, whose job it will be to convince Chinese fans of the European game that there is football worth watching in their own backyards.

With Beckham’s star power comes an as-yet unmentioned benefit in the form of a Spice Girl quite popular in China. Victoria Beckham made a huge splash in 2012 when she flew to Hong Kong to promote her new car line.

"I think Hong Kong can definitely influence what I am doing,"  she told reporters at the event. "I'm just scratching the surface. I’d love to have a store here one day."

The visit endeared Posh to many, significantly raising her stock in Asia. Worth noting too is that the mainstream Chinese consumer will have an estimated annual disposable income between $16,000 and $34,000 by 2020, leaving plenty of room for 'Brand Beckham' to develop.

The Chinese Super League was founded in 2004 and has had its fair share of high-profile foreign names. Paul Gascoigne, Carsten Jancker, Márcio Santos, Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and Howard Wilkinson as manager of Shanghai Shenhua have all plied their trade in the Middle Kingdom.

It can be argued that the current crop of foreigners is more impressive. Seydou Keita, Fábio Rochemback, Dario Conca, Frederic Kanoute, Yakubu and Lucas Barrios can be regularly seen on pitches from Beijing to Shanghai, while Marcello Lippi, Takeshi Okada, Radomir Antic and Sergio Batista manage Chinese clubs. While the league has suffered some recent big-name departures, Beckham’s addition to the foreign branding behind Chinese football seems relatively well placed.

Yes, there have been corruption issues in the past. The most recent ones date back to 2003 and saw Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Teda docked 6 points each for the upcoming 2013 season. For Chinese football to move on from these scandals, the likes of Beckham will be needed.

“I’m excited by the prospect of promoting the world’s greatest game to football fans inside China as I’ve seen firsthand that there’s a great interest in football from sports fans in China,” Beckham, an ever-green 37, said in a statement issued by IMG.

Chinese fans, regardless of social media statements, will surely be at Beijing airport when he arrives in order to get a glimpse of the mega-star.

With his Paris sojourn scheduled to end in May, Beckham is set to become a free agent just in time for the annual mass signing of foreign stars by Chinese clubs. What am I suggesting you may wonder? Only that that there is no shortage of money nor challenges in China, and that both are very appealing for ‘Brand Beckham’.