Adidas and the great Chinese football dream

Manchester United's Paul Pogba visited the Great Wall and Guangzhou recently, as one part of a broad, three-year partnership between Adidas and the Chinese education ministry to build grassroots support for football.

Paul Pogba in Guangzhou
Paul Pogba in Guangzhou

Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba sprinted on the Great Wall recently, and cheekily tagged Usain Bolt on Twitter, also adding the Adidas hashtag #heretocreate.

While Pogba’s comment about smashing Bolt’s records was a tease, he was in China as part of a serious effort by the Chinese education ministry and Adidas to instill a football tradition among Chinese schoolchildren in a nation that is more in love with the NBA. Thirty third- and fourth-graders from Jiangguangnai Primary School in Guangzhou were selected to participate in a football coaching session conducted by Pogba, a high-profile event attended by senior Adidas executives and Guangzhou education officials.

Starting in schoolyards

Pogba was not the first international football star and Adidas ambassador that has gone on the field to teach football skills to Chinese schoolchildren. David Beckham, another Adidas ambassador and a better-known figure on the mainland, went on a similar roadshow campaign at a high school in Guangzhou last year. Not incidentally, the city has been identified as a key city in Adidas’ grand football plan.

“As a city with a big passion for football as well as strong development in school football, Guangzhou remains one of the key cities at the forefront of our efforts to achieve this goal, and is vitally important to our aim to become China’s best sports brand by 2020,” said Jonannes Wang, vice president of government relations, Adidas China, in a statement on Pogba’s recent visit.

Training 20 million

Adidas’ foray onto the football pitches at Chinese schools is part of state-sanctioned effort to achieve Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious goal for China to lift the World Cup. In 2015, the German sports brand entered into a three-year partnership with the Chinese education ministry with a target to support training for 20 million students in 20,000 schools across China through a grassroot football programme.

Earlier this month, Adidas launched a television series called Daily Football,  which airs on China Education Television (CETV). Tom Byer, the US-born former player widely credited for his role in driving Japan’s national football campaign, was appointed as the coach in the show. The programme was shot on location in Beijing over five months, while a three-minute episode is slotted to air daily on CETV until June next year.

Colin Currie, Adidas Greater China managing director, called the launch of the TV series an important milestone in the brand’s partnership with the MOE.

Now two years into the partnership, Adidas China claims it has trained 13,000 teachers and approximately 1,760 students at summer and winter camps, besides donating footballs to 1,000 schools in China.

However, the brand asserts that the MOE partnership is just one (albeit a major) part of a decade-long push by the brand to develop grassroot football programmes in China. It also launched its Chinese edition of its Tango League in 2016 to provide a platform for Chinese amateur players to compete and meet international football stars from Adidas-sponsored clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, FC Bayern Munich and AC Milan.

It is a calculated strategy by Adidas to gain a share in the lucrative Chinese sports apparel market, considering the dominating force of Nike as the apparel sponsor for NBA. In a previous interview, Rupert McPetrie, CEO of MediaCom China, emphasised the importance for brands to take a long-term perspective in sports sponsorships.

“It’s about going back to the fundamental, why you are doing it,” said McPetrie. He pointed out that brands should also take a longer view of international sporting events in the region, with the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as well as the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

"Opportunities around sports in China are really interesting, from a top-down point of view, with the government's ambition to grow certain sports," said McPetrie. "It also comes bottom-up, with increasing interest in a broad spectrum of sports." 

Next, running

Far from focusing all its resources on football, Adidas said its overall strategy is on nurturing an “authentic legacy of sports” in China by venturing into other sports, such as running and basketball.

The brand has just completed its third-year sponsorship of the Shanghai Half Marathon, and will be sponsoring the Beijing Marathon for the seventh time this summer. It is also carrying out a grassroots approach with running, as it claims to have conducted over 800 running activites for more than 14,000 participants over 2016, besides launching its running facility Runbase in Shanghai in 2015.

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