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How can China become an attractive destination for footballers?
China has a huge appetite for football, so it should come as little surprise that the Chinese Super League has been welcomed with open arms. The quality of players that have been brought in since it formed has added to the excitement levels, and these players will have a profound impact on the progression of the younger Chinese players coming through.
However, will it ever be able to match the leading leagues in the world in terms of quality on show and interest? It remains to be seen since there are a lot of factors out of their control that will hold it back.
The most significant of which is the time difference between China and the European countries, which has also ensured American football, basketball and hockey hasn’t been able to excel around much of Europe.
The big difference there, however, is that the NFL, NHL and NBA are the leading leagues in the world for their sports, while the CSL isn’t yet. The CSL can only dream about at present to be as competitive and broadcasted as the most popular sports leagues in the world.
Nigerian forward Odion Ighalo left Watford for the Chinese Super League in 2017 and it might look like an odd choice. Especially considering the prolific Eagles forward was only 27 years old at the time and was one of the main references of the Hornets in Premier League.
He joined Changchun Yatai in 2017, but the team was relegated, and he traded them for Shanghai Shenhua the season after.
So, is it all about the money that attracts players like Ighalo to go to the still not so competitive Chinese Super League?
The most comprehensive way to increase the interest in the league would be to make the quality on display better for those watching. It is all well and good having the odd superstar in each of the sides, but if the surrounding players aren’t as talented, then it will never be the same level as leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga.
This seems to be an area that they are attempting to address with Rafael Benitez taking over at Dalian Yifang over the summer. This was a significant moment as the Spaniard rejected the opportunity to stay in the Premier League with Newcastle United to make the move.
There is no doubting that Benitez is one of the best coaches in the world and will increase the quality on the pitch for Yifang, but he wasn’t the only coach that was linked with a move to China. Jose Mourinho was also approached about moving to Asia to take over as the head coach of the Chinese national side. Despite being a world-record amount for a coach, Mourinho rejected the advances as he would prefer to stay in Europe.
There is no doubting that there is local interest in the league and that has been shown by the fact that there is an average of 26,000 fans per game. That makes it the sixth most popular domestic football competition, and the 12th most popular professional sports league. Those findings are backed up by Deloitte, who claimed that the league has averaged 690 million viewers over the past 12 months on media platforms.
That is five times the amount that it was ten years ago, and Deloitte claimed that the league would be a huge investment opportunity since these numbers are unlikely to lower. The main reasoning behind this was the CSL’s ability to give younger players a chance due to the salary cap that is implemented.
It is the best way to approach the CSL as it will also have a significant impact on the national side since the local players will improve when playing with better players, but it will be a long process until the league is captivating European audiences. Still, the league is growing faster than a horse in the racetrack of the Kentucky Derby and they have already made deals with some countries, as people want to follow the career of local players like Ighalo.
To compare the league to the English and Spanish equivalents will be unfair, but they can take inspiration from the MLS. That is a realistic league that they can overhaul in the European market, especially given that a lot of the more mainstream stars in the USA are now leaving. There could be a change in the landscape, but the CSL will have to capitalise.