In­ter Mi­lan strug­gling on the pitch, chas­ing growth in China

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

In­ter Mi­lan’s grand plans stretch far be­yond Italy as it har­nesses the con­nec­tions of its new Chi­nese own­er­ship to ex­pand the fan base and at­tract spon­sors in Asia.

There an il­lus­tri­ous his­tory at­tached to the brand for In­ter’s ex­ec­u­tives to sell to com­pa­nies: From the three Cham­pi­ons League tri­umphs to the 18 Ital­ian ti­tles.

There’s just lit­tle to trum­pet about the club’s cur­rent show­ing on the field.

In the first sea­son since be­ing bought by Chi­nese elec­tron­ics re­tailer Sun­ing in June, In­ter has won just three of its eight league games and sits 11th in Serie A.

The team heads into Thurs­day’s Europa League game against Southamp­ton bot­tom of its group with­out a point af­ter two losses.

Publicly, they aren’t pan­ick­ing yet in the In­ter board­room or con­tem­plat­ing a change of coaches, with Frank de Boer only two months into the job.

“He came in 10 days be­fore the start of the sea­son,” chief ex­ec­u­tive Michael Bol­ing­broke said. “So we want to give him time.”

Bol­ing­broke, a for­mer Manch­ester United ex­ec­u­tive, talked en­thu­si­as­ti­cally for 40 min­utes dur­ing a visit to Lon­don, about a five-year plan to trans­form the club that’s ap­proach­ing half­time.

“My re­mit when I joined (in 2012) was to get In­ter back suc­cess­ful on and suc­cess­ful off the pitch,” Bol­ing­broke said. “Con­sis­tently in the Cham­pi­ons League, mak­ing money, not los­ing money.”

The change of own­er­ship from In­done­sian busi­ness­man Erick Tho­hir to Chi­nese en­tre­pre­neur Zhang Jin­dong has en­abled In­ter to “ac­cel­er­ate the plan,” Bol­ing­broke said.

Losses of around 60 mil­lion eu­ros are set to be re­ported for 2015-16 but In­ter ex­pects to have cut them by a third this year and be prof­itable by 2019.

Although rev­enue is fore­cast to break the 200 mil­lion-euro bar­rier this sea­son, that is only a third of Manch­ester United’s 2016-17 tar­get, one of the big­gest in soc­cer.

The gulf in the clubs’ mon­ey­mak­ing abil­i­ties re­flects just how far Serie A lags the English Premier League, af­ter be­ing the dom­i­nant com­pe­ti­tion in Europe at the end of the last cen­tury.

Sun­ing’s own­er­ship can help to re­dress the bal­ance, with Bol­ing­broke re­gard­ing Chi­nese own­ers as a game-changer for In­ter.

“They think we as a club have com­pletely un­der­es­ti­mated the value of be­ing in China and we are guilty of not ex­ploit­ing the Chi­nese mar­ket enough,” he said. “When we sat down with them, they asked why we don’t have more spon­sors in Asia.”

Why would Asia spon­sors want to be as­so­ci­ated with a strug­gling team in a league that lacks the global cov­er­age of the Premier League or La Liga?

In China, hitch­ing your­self to soc­cer is in vogue, viewed as a short­cut to se­cur­ing in­flu­ence in high places now that Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has en­cour­aged in­vest­ment in the game to strengthen the do­mes­tic league and na­tional team.

But Sun­ing, which also owns Jiangsu Sun­ing club at home, is not just frit­ter­ing cash on soc­cer to rise up the busi­ness strata.

“If it was all about pol­i­tics, why would they say a pri­or­ity is not los­ing money?” Bol­ing­broke stresses.

To make money, 12 In­ter staff will be oper­at­ing from a Chi­nese sales of­fice in Nan­jing by next month, work­ing closely with Sun­ing’s lo­cal HQ.

“As Euro­pean clubs, it’s very hard in Asia un­less you have a bridge­head, open­ing doors,” Bol­ing­broke said.

“If you don’t have a Sun­ing with you, you don’t have ac­cess to that busi­ness in China. With the ac­cess they have, we have op­por­tu­ni­ties we didn’t have be­fore they came along.”

In­ter es­ti­mates 148 mil­lion of its 311 mil­lion fans are in China, cit­ing data from re­search firm Repu­com. In­ter is also work­ing in tan­dem with Jiangsu Sun­ing, the Chi­nese Su­per League club also owned by Zhang.

“They have spent a lot of time try­ing to un­der­stand how our acad­emy sys­tem works,” Bol­ing­broke said.

“They want Jiangsu Sun­ing to be top of the Chi­nese Su­per League, not by im­port­ing play­ers but de­vel­op­ing their own.”

There is no di­rec­tive to bring Chi­nese play­ers over to the San Siro just to pan­der to the own­er­ship at home.

“We fail if we don’t win tro­phies,” Bol­ing­broke said. “You aren’t go­ing to be able to do that if you com­pro­mised your tech­ni­cal squad be­cause a sign­ing would be good for spon­sor­ship.”

Win­ning with the cur­rent squad is hard enough at the mo­ment as it en­dures a four-game run with­out a win.

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