Lawwell: Celtic must cross Europe to conquer China

Chinese former Celtic player Zheng Zhi in action against Rangers at Ibrox in 2009. Picture: Jane Barlow
Chinese former Celtic player Zheng Zhi in action against Rangers at Ibrox in 2009. Picture: Jane Barlow
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MANY have tried and all have so far failed to make it pay, but Peter Lawwell flew out to China yesterday – his third visit this year – in an attempt to put in place the foundations for tapping into a vast commercial football market.

Trying to get a foothold in what he calls an “extraordinary developing country and powerhouse” is a long game, said the Celtic chief executive.

Lawwell took with him his commercial director, Adrian Filby, plus John Park, his chief scout. A representative from the SPFL will be in China also and so, too, will First Minister Alex Salmond.

“There is a team of us and it’s the third time we have been out this year,” said Lawwell. “Whenever these countries develop, football follows. They’re football crazy, mainly about the English Premier League and the Champions League. So, with our profile and exposure, people are now talking about Celtic.

“There is a lot of investment coming from China now into the UK, in terms of Manchester Airport. They are looking for a presence and they are looking to invest in a lot of western European companies and brands. Football follows, and we are going out there to find out what is going on.”

In recent years, Celtic have had two Chinese players on their books, neither of whom were successful. Zheng Zhi played less than 20 times for the club before being moved on, and Du Wei lasted just 45 minutes in a Scottish Cup defeat to Clyde before his time in Glasgow came to an embarrassing halt. Merely signing players from China is not a fast-track into this market.

Although it faces competition from the rise in popularity of the NBA of America, football remains the most watched spectator sport in China. The local leagues are poor, so the focus on Europe is huge.

A research company called Kantar estimated earlier in the year that Manchester United have as many as 108 million supporters in China. United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona have all played pre-season matches in the country over the last few years.

Celtic are very much playing a game of catch-up here. In 2011, Liverpool created a social media platform in China, launching themselves on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. They now have more than 750,000 followers. The content from their website is translated from an office in Shanghai. Brendan Rodgers has recently done a Q&A just for Chinese fans.

Arsenal have made China their priority for international growth. Their website tailors its content accordingly.

Many of the other major clubs in Europe do the same. Real Madrid’s website carried a video of Cristiano Ronaldo wishing Chinese fans a happy Chinese New Year, with Iker Casillas repeating the message in Mandarin.

Most of these clubs have their own online merchandise stores targeted at Chinese supporters.

Lawwell concedes that it will be a fiendishly difficult market to break into, but the potential rewards for success would be significant. “We are going to sign an agreement with a Chinese company who are going to represent us. It’s not investment into the club. It’s sponsorship, commercial and maybe some social projects. We’ll go to Beijing as we have contacts there and it’s all about getting the Celtic name out there. Whether it is through social or grassroots projects, whether it is academies here or sponsorship.

“For a Champions League club, that is the proposition. The difficulty we have in any international sponsorship is the competition, which is mainly the English Premier League. That is the challenge. How do we, playing in Scotland with little exposure, attract sponsorship? Champions League is one. For Chinese companies looking to establish themselves in Europe, they get a bit of profile. For Chinese businesses who are buying brands to take back, it gives profile.

“In terms of our proposition, like we have in India, we have social projects.

“There are a lot of dislocated communities there and football brings people together. The reason we were formed was to give our community an identity, so that’s a way of getting our brand out there. Champions League. Football. Community. That’s our proposition. Hopefully, they like us and our values and want to be part of it.

“John is going to meet a few people, see who is there and maybe take in a game or two. The SPFL have sold their internet rights and that’s happening. That’s a start and, if the job is done properly, they can take things on to the TV.“

Lawwell will be in China until early next week and will direct to Amsterdam for Celtic’s Champions League game with Ajax on Wednesday night.