The biggest names in English football have been trying to ‘crack’ China for
United have played in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, plus the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau, in recent years, but there is a sense within the club that they are still attempting to scratch the surface in China.
On Wednesday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team will play Shanghai Shenhua in China’s wealthiest and most western-leaning city, but while the visit of United is huge news, they will be forced to take second-billing to Didier Drogba when they face Shenhua.
Drogba is due to make his debut for his new club, managed by former Chelsea team-mate Nicolas Anelka, against United on Wednesday and it is the Ivorian’s first appearance since his hugely lucrative summer move from the European champions that is the headline act in Shanghai.
Drogba’s debut will steal the limelight from City and Arsenal ahead of their prestige friendly in Beijing’s spectacular Birds Nest Stadium on Friday, but United have smartly recognised that they will at least share the spotlight with Drogba this week.
City and Arsenal will clearly be big news in Beijing on Friday.
Back home in England, all eyes might be on the opening ceremony of London 2012, but officials from both clubs are confident that their clash in the Chinese capital will capture the imagination of the sports community in the Far East much more than events half the world away in London.
And that is what this week’s pre-season friendlies are all about. United, City and Arsenal are out to break new ground and earn greater popularity in the Far East, so the attentions of the domestic audience back in the UK do not come into the equation.
City had attempted to persuade United to agree to a derby clash in Beijing, rather than the eventual date against Arsenal, but the idea was knocked back by United, who believe their brand in China is strong enough to prosper on its own, without the help of a box office meeting with their neighbours.
But while United claim to have millions of supporters in China, tapping into their popularity there has not proven to be as straightforward and financially-rewarding as in the likes of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, where companies and potential partners are falling over themselves to pay for some kind of association with the club.
China is a harder nut to crack and sponsorship deals are more difficult to structure and secure.
United’s major off-field income comes from the United States, with Nike (£23m) and Aon (£20m) contributing over £40m a year to Old Trafford’s coffers.
At City and Arsenal, they rely on funds from the UAE – sponsorship deals with Etihad and Emirates respectively – to drive their commercial revenue streams.
In terms of Chinese money, no top Premier League club has been able to land a deal which can compare to the funds delivered by American companies or Middle Eastern airlines.
But United, City and Arsenal are all in China this week to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, despite the difficulties in locating it.
And the reality is that it may become even more difficult for English clubs to exploit their popularity in the country if China’s domestic league begins to take off and continues to attract more star names such as Drogba and Anelka.