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The Interview - Yanyu Zheng, Vice President at All Star Partner - China

It was a pleasure to interview Yanyu Zheng, Vice President at All Star Partner, and be able to deep-dive into the differences between working in several continents such as Asia, Europe, and America. The sports industry, market maturity, company strategies, and working styles all vary greatly between countries, and even more between continents. Hence it is very interesting to gain insights from a professional with such a wide scope, originally from China, and to get a further understanding of how the Sports Industry and Sports Market works in China. SPSG Consulting is cooperating with All Star Partners in bridging the gap between selected sports properties in Spain and the Chinese market. "Xie-xie" to Yanyu Sheng for sharing your knowledge with us.

You have been exposed to and actively involved in the sports industry in different countries and also continents: Asia, Europe, America. What are the main differences you can identify when dealing with sport industry professionals in Asia, Europe and America?

Professionals working in sports industry in China have their particularities: Sports industry is not a mature industry in China and does not have a long history of development, therefore the education system behind and supporting it is quite new and still to be constructed. Many of the professionals working in sports industry in China come from all kinds of background and/or industries. A lot of them lack some industry specific knowledge but at the same time they also bring in a lot of creativities and practices original from outside the sport world, above all from sectors of Internet, advertising, finance, media etc. It is very interesting to see how Chinese sports industry evolves in its own way under the contribution of all these diversified professionals. In China sport is not among the industries that enjoy high salaries in general, but recently years many good career opportunities in sport arise and as a result we could see more and more talented young professionals jumping into the industry.

Speaking of sport professionals from western world, while working together as colleagues, partners or clients, I find sport professionals from mature markets such as Europe being more organized, in compliance with existing processes and rules, which facilitate a lot in establishing partnership and executing joint projects. Maybe sometimes we find some agility is missing which slows down the work from our western counterparts, but in general I enjoy a lot working with them.

China is extremely relevant in the sports industry, having even hosted major sport events such as both Summer and Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, F1 races, ATP/WTA tennis tournaments, etc. Even more, China has a strategic plan in order to improve sports, both as a way to enhance the quality of life and health of the Chinese population and, in addition, to empower the sport industry. Can you elaborate for us a little bit more in terms of the strategic importance of the sports industry for and in China?

Without any doubts we are in the most golden age of sports industry in China’s history. It has never been so dynamic, attention-grabbing and fast growing as it is today. The most important sports competitions are successfully held in China, Chinese brands are being presented as main sponsors in major global sports events and stages, Chinese capital is more and more involved in the world’s most valuable sport assets.. Of course, together with all the booming, it is normal that a lot of immaturity in details arise, sometimes we see chaotic cases in unordered market competition and quick investments that do not conform to business logic. Though with a few setbacks and specially under all the uncertainties Covid brings, sport will surely continue to grow and in big scale in China for the next decades, inevitable result thanks to economic, social and cultural development. I will expect the industry to continue consolidating in a professional manner, towards more sustainable and long-term perspectives, and surely continue to opening up and connecting to all international resources and opportunities while being more in line with global standard.

Your company, All Star Partners (ASP) is working or have been working with international and relevant sport organizations such as FCBarcelona, AFA-Asociación Futbol Argentina, RFEF, FEB, International Curling Federation, etc. in terms of merchandising and social media. What are the key success factors of ASP that allow international sport organizations to be successful in the competitive Chinese market?

Chinese sports industry and market has its unique characteristics, due to many factors: history and stage of development (relatively early stage compared to mature markets such as Europe and North America), population and income distribution, impact of government planning & policies etc.

To help our international partners (elite sports properties from western countries- FC Barcelona and Argentina Football Association for example) be successful in the Chinese market, my company All Star Partner (ASP) makes great effort specially to leverage, consolidate and enhance a sustainable brand image development of these properties in China. Most of our partners already enjoy great popularity in China, thanks to the amazing performance shown in TV and Internet, and specially with the glamorous star athletes, but there is still a long way to go to consolidate the brand value to be constant, amiable and approximate in the eyes of Chinese fans and business partners, rather than some transitory and distant images from just a few Saturdays mid-night matches or one-month World Cup heat every four years.

Taking Argentina Football Association (AFA) as an example, while already being the most supported national team during Football FIFA World Cup by Chinese fans for the past decades, it practically ‘did not exist’ as an influential brand in China in the other 47 months of the four-year World Cup cycle. The situation has been dramatically changed since our company ASP was named officially ‘AFA China Office’ in 2019 and, since then, our effort in the areas of marketing, social media, public relations, e-commerce and business development has made AFA constantly visible, reachable and prominent in the Chinese market.

China has a different social-media platform ecosystem compared to Europe and America. What are the main characteristics of the Chinese ecosystem that can be used by sport industry organizations?

Effectively so, due to different reasons (historical, cultural, social and censorship etc.), a billion-level amount of Chinese Internet users are making use of social media every day, same as their peers in western countries in terms of degree of immersion (or probably we could use the word ‘addiction’), but very differently in terms of platforms, ways of engagement, trends and the business environment behind.

Most of our European partners know about Weibo if they have certain business connections with China. Indeed Weibo has been the first Chinese dominant social media over the past decade. Weibo could be seen as a mix of the functioning of Twitter and Facebook, and its name means ‘microblogging’ but long content, pictures and videos functions were later added. Chinese social media competitive landscape is so fast-changing and dynamic that Weibo’s impact has been decreasing overtime. Having presence in Weibo today will only enable a brand to reach a certain segment of Chinese users and no longer a dominant majority.

One of the most quickly arising social media platform in China is Douyin, the original and Chinese version of Tik Tok. Douyin not only revolutionizes the primary way of story-telling in Chinese social media from text+photo to short video+live streaming, but also drives the importance of algorithm in changing the way Internet traffics are distributed to improve user experiences. What most surprises is that Douyin has more and more became the biggest competitor of the traditional monopoly Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao with its astonishingly growing market share in e-commerce.

The social media landscape in China is so dynamic and fast changing day by day, it is more than certain that if we talk about the same topic next year, we will be talking about new names and trends that nowadays it is difficult to predict. And, certainly, all these phenomena represent an important challenge for western sports properties and brands to react and adapt if they want to make the best of these channels to reach to their fans and to drive monetization in a more creative and effective way.

According to your understanding, what are the main trends of the sports industry looking forward from a Chinese perspective?

In the past, sports industry in a non-mature market like China, concentrates mainly in big scale competitions and events, marketing & sponsorships and local sports-wearing brands etc. Diversification grows with new ways of commercialization and above all, combined/crossover with China’s advantageous business sectors such as consumption, e-commerce, public’s participation in physical exercise, Internet, and social media etc.

I would like to highlight two examples, one is that singer and professional trainer Liu Genghong increased his followers to 60 million in Douyin within just a week during Shanghai’s recent lockdown due to COVID, and millions of Chinese Internet users do fitness with his livestreaming 4 times a week and this has become one of the most trending topic and event across the whole country during the past month. Another example is the fact that my company All Star Partner (ASP) started to grow a new football licensing business that did not exist as a scaled and professional-operated business in China, and we started from scratch three years ago and has now increased to become a multi-million business. Before our attempt and participation, in years before 2018, a Chinese football fans of Portuguese national team, Spanish national team, or FC Barcelona etc. had no formal and effective access to purchase and obtain an official licensed product from these renowned teams with hundred of millions of loyal fans in China. Facing the biggest and vibrant consumer market in the world, we started this new business in a way that best satisfy Chinese consumers and facilitate their purchase in local e-commerce platforms by providing the products that developed locally thus fit exactly the local needs (in terms of designs, price/quality, channels as well as service). This is one of the key factors of the success of sport properties such as AFA, FCBarcelona and RFEF (recently signed), among other clients, in China.

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