David Beckham is perhaps one of the most recognised sportsmen in the world. Although polarizing opinion early in his career, his determination and continued performance for club and country have led to the continued growth of Brand Beckham.
Becks is no stranger to commercial endorsements working with brands such as adidas, Samsung and H&M not to mention ambassador roles for London2012 and England’s failed FIFA World Cup 2018 bid. In fact according to Forbes, Beckham was 8th in terms of the World’s Highest Paid Athletes in 2012 with over US$37m of his total US$46m coming from endorsements.
His career has seen stops in the UK, USA, Italy and now France where he recently signed for cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). At each stopover, he has successfully merged his playing career with that of Brand Beckham to raise the profile of the relevant league – something that no other player has done to the same level of success.
Now Becks has set his sights on China and a new role as the first global ambassador for Chinese Football.
There is no doubting the potential that exists for football in China, millions regularly tune in to AFC Champions League matches featuring the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Guoan. With a population of over 1.3billion the opportunity is almost limitless.
Unfortunately the image of Chinese football has long been tarnished with allegations of corruption and match-fixing, culminating recently with dozens of players and officials being banned from the game and in some cases jailed. This combined with the perceived low quality of the Chinese Super League (CSL) and poor performance of the national team in failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup leads to the sport being under-represented across the country.
There have been efforts by clubs to raise the profile of the CSL through high profile signings such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Unfortunately these experiments have been short-lived with issues over payment and performance alongside underlying match-fixing rumours continuing to derail the competition and football in general.
So now ‘Golden Balls’ has been brought in by the Chinese Football Association to try and revive football in the country. In his recent inaugural tour Beckham visited schools and clubs in three Chinese cities for “training sessions” and the obligatory photo opportunities – fans and media flocked to the appearances, however quite how many came with a genuine interest in the revival of Chinese football versus the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a superstar remains to be seen. Initial reports suggest the latter as seemingly more has been made in the media about his new Chinese tattoo and free-kick slip than any robust long term strategy for Chinese football, further illustrating the challenges faced.
There is no doubting credibility of Brand Beckham or the awareness his ambassador role will bring to Chinese Football. Having never played in China however, his relevance to the growth of football in the country is blurred and despite best intentions, three visits per year are not going to change that in the short term.
To truly maximise this partnership, Beckham needs to be imbedded into Chinese football and this must start from the ground up. Estimates suggest that less than 100,000 youths play any form of organised football and this is where the focus should be. Establishing a David Beckham Academy similar to London (now renamed) and Los Angeles would be a great start while Becks could also use his network to bring Chinese footballers to Europe or USA to provide exposure beyond the Great Wall.
Digital channels must also play a key role in the Beckham-assisted revival of Chinese football. The opportunity for Becks to have a presence on one of the social media channels is far too great to pass up, just ask Kobe Bryant and his 900k followers since joining weibo in February (weibo.com/kobebryantmamba). A profile on Sina Weibo (est. 400million users) or Renren (est. 100million users) would provide Beckham and Chinese Football an ongoing platform to engage with fans and continue to leverage Beckham’s ambassador role far beyond his visits.
It is by no means a simple fix and despite these best efforts, perhaps the only way for Beckham to truly revive Chinese football is through lacing up his adidas boots for a season in the Chinese Super League.
Unfortunately for Beckham and Chinese football, even that may not be enough.