FIFA-Alibaba deal rests on China play

E-com­merce gi­ant’s sports unit eyes more matches in the coun­try


Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd’s sports unit said its dis­cus­sions with FIFAon be­com­ing a top-level spon­sor of the World Cup hinges on more Chi­nese in­volve­ment in the world’s most-watched sport­ing event.

Alibaba Sports Group Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Zhang Dazhong con­firmed the talks with FIFA, re­ported by Bloomberg in May, in an in­ter­view in Shang­hai on Wed­nes­day. If it makes the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar com­mit­ment, Alisports, as the com­pany is known, would be­come FIFA’s sec­ond Chi­nese spon­sor af­ter DalianWanda Group Co pledged its sup­port in March to the scan­dal-plagued foot­ball gov­ern­ing body un­til 2030.

“We are dis­cussing with FIFA about the spon­sor­ship is­sue,” Zhang said. “What we hope is that there will be more matches to be held in China and the coun­try can par­tic­i­pate more to boost the Chi­nese foot­ball mar­ket.”

Since Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping made soc­cer suc­cess a na­tional pri­or­ity, Chi­nese com­pa­nies and busi­ness­men have made a sle­wof in­vest­ments in na­tional and in­ter­na­tional clubs, and the coun­try has made plain its de­sire to host the FIFA World Cup. In March, Wanda pres­i­dent Wang Jian­lin, China’s sec­on­drich­est man, said that hav­ing mul­ti­ple Chi­nese spon­sors would help China’s bid to host the world’s most-watched sport­ing event.

Un­der FIFA reg­u­la­tions, the ear­li­est China could host the tour­na­ment would be 2030. Alibaba is al­ready a spon­sor of FIFA’s Club World Cup and owns a stake in the Chi­nese foot­ball team Guangzhou Ever­grande, which has splashed out on in­ter­na­tional foot­ballers like Robinho and Jack­son Martinez.

Alisports was set up last Septem­ber with Alibaba Group as ma­jor­ity owner along­side Sina Corp and Yun­feng Cap­i­tal, an in­vest­ment firm owned by Alibaba chair­manJackMa who is a be­liever in the sport’s business po­ten­tial and has said the lo­cal scene needs “some­body to help stir up things”.

Zhang said that Alisports’ edge is its ac­cess to the con­sump­tion habits of the 500 mil­lion reg­is­tered buy­ers on Alibaba’s e-com­merce plat­forms. In­sights from the data have guided its ma­jor in­vest­ments into rugby, for ex­am­ple, he said. While the sport is not very well-known inChina, Alibaba’s online buy­ing data sug­gests an ac­cel­er­at­ing growth pat­tern, he said.

“Although you don’t see it on TV, we can see it in the data,” Zhang said. “We can see peo­ple buy­ing rugby Zhang Dazhong, balls, cloth­ing, equip­ment, or look­ing at matches, search­ing for fa­mous play­ers. We can un­der­stand the strength of the trend from the data, and that’s our spe­cial ad­van­tage.”

Based on its cus­tomer data, the com­pany snapped up the Chi­nese broad­cast rights for the Na­tional Foot­ball League in China and in April, signed a 10-year deal with World Rugby, the global gov­ern­ing body of the sport, to de­velop it in China and be­yond.

What we hope is ... (China) can par­tic­i­pate more to boost the Chi­nese foot­ball mar­ket.” chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Alibaba Sports Group

Still, it can be a chal­lenge to de­velop con­sumer data anal­y­sis into a suc­cess­ful business strat­egy, said Li Sheng, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of SECA World, a ri­val sports business.

“If you say that ev­ery­one is buy­ing this on Taobao and so I’ll put money there, it’s just the first step,” said Li.

“It’s a mar­ket sur­vey. It doesn’t mean it can trans­late into a rev­enue stream.”


FC Barcelona player Luis Suarez (R) re­ceives the FIFA Club World Cup from Jack Ma (L), chair­man of Alibaba Group, China’s e-com­merce gi­ant, on De­cem­ber 20, 2015. Barcelona beat Yoko­hama, sub­ur­ban Tokyo, to clinch the ti­tle last year.


FIFA Mar­ket­ing Direc­tor Thierry Weil (L) shakes hands with Zhang Dazhong af­ter dis­cussing a pos­si­ble spon­sor­ship deal.

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