Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – China may not be sending a side to Qatar, but Chinese businesses will have top billing as sponsors at the 2022 World Cup.
Chinese brands are the biggest sponsors of this month’s tournament — even outspending the slate of American companies that includes iconic names such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Budweiser.
China’s sponsors have ponied up $1.395bn for the competition, which runs November 20-December 18, surpassing the $1.1bn spent by US companies, according to Global Data, a London-based data analytics and consulting company.
Broken down on an annual basis, Chinese sponsorship is valued at $207m per year, compared with Qatari and US deals worth $134m and $129m, respectively, according to the data.
China’s corporate dominance at the competition reflects the aspirations of its brands to expand their recognition overseas to a level that matches their growing size and reach.
The rise of Chinese sponsors also parallels President Xi Jinping’s dream of turning China, which made its sole World Cup appearance in 2002, into a football powerhouse through ambitious plans and targets, such as increasing the number of schools with football pitches 10-fold by 2025 .
While the four Chinese sponsors of the 2022 tournament — Wanda Group, Vivo, Mengniu Dairy and Hisense — have relatively low profiles outside their home country, they are huge enterprises with multibillion-dollar revenues and thousands of employees.
Wanda Group, an industry-spanning conglomerate founded in 1988, and Mengniu, one of China’s largest dairy producers, have each made the Fortune 500 list several times.
“The World Cup works for Chinese companies both outside but also inside China as soccer has a large following with Chinese audiences,” Martin Roll, a branding expert and consultant based in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“It signals strongly that these Chinese brands are playing at global scale, and showcasing that to Chinese audiences play an important role. Being a sponsor and a marketing partner of the World Cup is only for a selected few brands that can afford it, so just being part of it, is a testimony to the aspirations of the Chinese brands.”
Chinese companies hope an association with the beautiful game may help them shed negative perceptions about the “made in China” tag, said Paul Temporal, a branding expert at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.
“Sports sponsorships allow Chinese brands to connect with global audiences that share universal love of sports experiences in emotional settings. Football crosses all cultural boundaries and provides massive global reach,” Temporal told Al Jazeera.
“Chinese brands have learned from western counterparts that, although expensive to gain access to the world’s best events, sports sponsorships do deliver long-term results both for the brand owners and the nation. Brands that go global are brand ambassadors for China and if successful in terms of global market share, can have a positive effect on national brand image.”
The biggest Chinese sponsor in Qatar by far is Wanda Group, one of the seven official FIFA Partners — the highest sponsorship tier — alongside Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Kia, Qatar Airways, QatarEnergy, and Visa.
The Beijing-based conglomerate, which has investments in real estate, entertainment, media, manufacturing and financial services, has committed $850m as part of a 15-year deal that covers all World Cup events up until 2030, according to Global Data.
Vivo, a consumer electronics company based in the southern city of Dongguan, is spending an estimated $450m as part of a six-year deal that included the 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup.
Mengniu, which has its headquarters in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, and Hisense, an electronics manufacturer based in Qingdao, have committed to spend an estimated $60m and $35m, respectively.
“Many Chinese companies grew globally by acquiring foreign brands. Lenovo and Haier have followed this approach in addition to their own brand building,” Carlos Torelli, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Al Jazeera, referring to China’s popular personal computer and consumer electronics brands.
“That makes it easier to penetrate global markets with an established brand. However, many other Chinese brands are attempting to build their own brands and events like the World Cup are perfect ones to create awareness among large audiences. Participating in these events can facilitate future market expansions.”
While solar panel manufacturer Yingli Solar became China’s first World Cup sponsor at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, Chinese companies began to make their presence known in a big way at the 2018 competition in Russia.
After leading brands, including Sony, Emirates and Johnson & Johnson, dropped FIFA in 2014 and 2015 amid allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the Russia and Qatar tournaments, Chinese companies filled the funding gap.
Shortly after Wanda Group signed its mega-sponsorship deal in 2016, company founder Wang Jianlin said the controversies had been an “opportunity” for Chinese firms that previously may have never had the chance to support the tournament “even if we wanted to”.
No fewer than seven Chinese companies sponsored the 2018 competition, spending an estimated $835m — far more than US and Russian brands.
Chinese firms maintained their strong showing at the 2021 Copa América, South America’s biggest football tournament, making up three of the four official sponsors.
Kuaishou, TCL Technology and Sinovac found themselves shouldering the bulk of the sponsorship duties after several big sponsors, including Mastercard and Diageo, pulled out amid controversy over the health risks posed to players by COVID-19.
Ahead of Qatar 2022, Chinese brands have again shown themselves to be more hesitant to wade into debates about human rights than their corporate counterparts elsewhere.
Unlike Budweiser, Adidas, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, Chinese sponsors have not expressed support for a Human Rights Watch campaign that calls on FIFA and Qatar to compensate migrant workers and their families for deaths and injuries that occurred during the World Cup preparations.
Qatar’s government has said it has made “substantial progress” on labor reforms and it continues to work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to “ensure that these reforms are far-reaching and effective”. Qatari officials have also denied allegations of corruption in their World Cup bid.
“Many global brands are careful of not getting into a political debate about their support, so they may have been more hesitant to join as sponsors,” Roll said.
Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing and sponsorship agency NC Partnership, said, however, that major sponsors from across the globe were ultimately choosing to stick with the tournament due to the huge business opportunities involved.
“There is controversy surrounding the staging of the World Cup in Qatar. However, would Coca-Cola pull out and risk Pepsi stepping in?” Currie told Al Jazeera.
“Would Visa surrender their position and allow Mastercard back? The motor vehicle category is hugely competitive and any number of global car companies would be keen to take over from Hyundai Kia. The same argument can be made for several other product categories. The simple fact is that World Cup deals are done over several World Cups and are designed to exclude competitors and provide major brands with an exclusive and elite opportunity to reach billions of people around the world.”
Josh Gardner, the CEO and co-founder of China-focused consultancy Kung Fu Data, said he expected Chinese brands to keep rising in international prominence as they “seek ways to build a stronghold beyond the homeland”.
“This is not unlike a parallel trend of Chinese brands inking sponsorship agreements with Hollywood,” Gardner told Al Jazeera, pointing to product placements involving Vivo, instant messenger Tencent QQ and e-commerce company Jingdong.
“Recall the many Marvel and DC movies featuring labels such as Vivo and QQ and plastering the Jingdong logo across fictional skyscrapers on the big screen.”