Fans of Manchester United wait outside the team's hotel in Beijing, in July, after a match due to be held in the Chinese capital against Manchester City was canceled.
Fans of Manchester United wait outside the team's hotel in Beijing, in July, after a match due to be held in the Chinese capital against Manchester City was canceled. Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP

If you were in any doubt as to China’s intention to own world football, you probably just haven’t been paying attention. But the desire for sporting might of the world’s rising superpower does not stop there, as the program of a three-day event being staged by LeSports, an arm of the conglomerate LeEco next week makes very clear.

Last year, sport contributed US$62 billion to the Chinese economy. The government wants it to be an US$800 billion industry by 2025. LeSports seems to have got the memo: as the website for LeSports Connects, a symposium that kicks off on Monday at the Mission Hills golf resort, in Guangdong province, states: “2016 is singularly the most important year ever for the sports industry and it’s all because of China.”

That’s quite a claim, but it’s one that comes at the end of a year in which some of China’s wealthiest companies have been forking out to buy both Chinese Super League and European football clubs, invest heavily in league broadcasting rights and partner with lifestyle brands, retailers and marketing agencies to grow audiences in the world’s most populous nation.

In Hong Kong alone, LeEco’s broadcast arm is paying US$400 million over three years to broadcast England’s Premier League. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is busy setting up a targeted 20,000 training academies and intends to work with football’s world governing body, FIFA, to develop the sport domestically.

LeSport Connects, the website claims, “will provide insight and connections into the people that are driving the sports business in [China] whilst focusing on the contribution the region is making to the global sports and entertainment industry.”

Former England and Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand will be among the speakers at LeSports Connects. Photo: AFP

A look at the list of speakers and guest organisations demonstrates just how much of a hold China now has on the future of sport – not to mention the extent to which it reaches across and connects many of the most lucrative sectors of China’s economy.

To pick out one speaker, more or less at random, Li Sheng is founder and CEO of SECA Worldwide, a “leading global sports management and marketing company” that is based in Shanghai.

A quick search reveals that its clients include the Chinese Olympic Committee, Manchester City Football Club, Samsung, Tencent, LeTV, Deloitte, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, FC Porto, Eintracht Frankfurt, Puma and Mission Hills, to name but a few.

Fittingly, a number of those clients will also be represented at LeSports Connects – along with leading figures from Major League Baseball, the NFL, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool FC, sports merchandisers Puma and adidas, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the Mixed Martial Arts promotion ONE Championship.

The Italian TV rights mogul Andrea Radrizzani – rumored to be weighing a move to buy the English football club Leeds United – will make a presentation, as will Beatrice Lee, the CEO of Baofeng, a Chinese company specializing in Virtual Reality and digital entertainment, and Andrew Collins, who owns Mailman, a leading “digital, technology and investment group”.

There will media entrepreneurs, mobile internet developers and marketing specialists, perennial sponsors of major sporting events (UBS, AIA, Visa), investment firms such as Kaixin Capital and big data experts, as well as several of LeEco’s broadcasting rivals, including ESPN and Sina Sports.

Children attend a football training session in the suburbs of Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

That the world’s biggest sports entities all appear to realize the center of gravity of world sport is shifting east almost goes without saying. What LeSports Connects illustrates, though, is how integrated the industry is geared up to become in terms of the alignment of interests – from teams to broadcasters to sponsors to merchandisers.

The Chinese government and private enterprises alike have realized the desirability of making the “sports economy” a major driver of domestic consumption – and they’re making it happen.