Ma's got World Cup ambitions before retiring

09:25, March 29, 2010      

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Ma Guoli, the man who masterminded the broadcasting of the Beijing Olympics, has a major ambition.

The 56-year-old, who is now chief executive of Infront China, part of the Swiss-based sports marketing giant, wants China to host the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in his lifetime.

He believes hosting the tournament would help China on the road to becoming a major footballing nation.

Since it was inaugurated in 1930, the four-yearly World Cup, which this year is being held in South Africa, has only once before been held in Asia - in 2002 when it was jointly staged between Japan and South Korea.

The 2014 World Cup is to be hosted by Brazil and although China was once thought to be a contender for the 2018 competition, it is no longer in the running. It is likely to go to England or a joint bid from Spain and Portugal, according to the bookmakers.

"Infront has already good connections with FIFA and one of the reasons I became involved with the company was that it might be one day possible to bring the World Cup to China, " he said.

Football is a big income earner for Infront internationally. Philippe Blatter, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the company is actually the nephew of world soccer boss Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA although there is no commercial connection.

In China, however, the world's top sport has been something of an Achilles heel. Infront entered into a five-year deal with the China Football Association but it collapsed after two years with both parties reportedly not being happy with the arrangement. The contract was actually canceled before Ma joined the company last year.

Ma, who, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, was once one of the top 50 "most influential people in sport" globally, said one of the problems was the poor performance of the China national football team

"The fact is before I came here, Infront and the CFA (Chinese Football Association) had discussed dropping the contract. I therefore stood for the contract cancellation. China hadn't got into the World Cup qualifiers, which meant no worthwhile matches in the two years, " he said.

Despite the cancellation of the contract with the China Football Association, Ma wants to move towards closer involvement with football.

"Personally I don't want to give up on the possibility of a football contract because I think football events, especially those involving national teams, are the most watched events, " he said.

Ma, who succeeded Wang Yingquan, whose period of office was dogged by the football wranglings, is a major critic of the inability of sports organizations in China to realize their commercial potential.

The former TV boss, who headed the broadcasting of the 2008 Olympics said he only became aware of the extent of the lack of any commercial culture in China's sports industry when he took up his current role.

"I knew that sport in China was less market-oriented than in many other countries but I didn't realize how much this was the case before I got this new job," he said.

"I didn't quite expect how difficult it is to make money from sports. It is not easy to call what we have in terms of sport in this country an actual market."

Ma is bringing all his knowledge of the industry to bear in the role. He has more than 20 years of experience in the sports industry.

He was a founder of CCTV-5, the first dedicated sports TV channel in China.

And he is best known for his role as chief operations officer of the Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Company, which meant he led the international broadcasting of the Games themselves as well as the Paralympics.

The operation he spearheaded was a joint venture between the Beijing Organizing Committee of Olympic Games and Olympic Broadcasting Services, owned by the International Olympic Committee.

Before that, he was responsible for China's television broadcast of the 1990 and 1994 Asian Games and he has also worked on five previous Olympics as well as four Winter Games.

It is this background that Infront hopes Ma can capitalize on. The company, based in Zug, Switzerland, focuses on the distribution of sports and media rights, host broadcasting, program production, staging events, brand development, sponsorship and online entertainment.

Last year, it delivered worldwide more than 1,800 event-days including 17 world championship events.

"My former jobs were about how to spend money, meaning that I hadn't to be too concerned about revenue. But now I have to try something new, that is, to make money," he said.

Since entering the China market in 2003, Infront has poured tens of millions of dollars in what has so far proved a difficult job in exploiting the commercial potential of a sports-mad nation of 1.3 billion people.

After 10 months of Ma being in charge, the company at last returned a profit in China for the first time and he is confident the company's operations here can now stand on their own feet without being subsidized by the Swiss head office.

"As for my role, I think the most important thing I bring to Infront China is confidence," he said. "I believe I can enthuse the internal management of the company and build up its confidence."

However, he believes his high profile within the China sports sector can deliver telling results.

"Recognition is quite essential for a sports marketing company. And that's where I can make more of a contribution than anyone else," he said.

Ma said one of the problems with the commercialization of sport in China was that private sector money was often not vital to the staging of any event, unlike in Western countries, because State funding dominates everywhere.

"Infront China represents league events of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and negotiates deals with sponsors but without the involvement of a company such as ours the games would still take place. The sort of income we bring in is just an additional supplement to these events," he said.

He said it was difficult for sports companies like his to play a role in imported sports events such as Formula One racing or National Football League games in China because they tend to be one-off occasions.

"They are really too infrequent to develop a sustainable sports marketing base in the country," he added.

While intent on exploring other avenues in sport to gather revenue, Ma said the staple for the company would remain basketball, which has the biggest fan base in China and from the sponsorship of which Infront derives 80 per cent of its revenues.

"Infront China has unparalelled advantages in basketball, representing the league events of the CBA, as well as both men and women's national basketball teams. I think by performing well in these we can demonstrate that we have the capability to develop other areas, " he said. "Soccer is the other big sport in China. The country's poor performance at the game affects its marketing potential, whereas basketball has developed in a more consistent way."

Ma said the long-term success of a company such as Infront depends on being involved in sports at grassroots levels. "The key strategy to securing profit in this market is to be involved in popular sports like basketball at community level and support events held each week," he said, adding the danger was getting involved in ever-expensive contracts with the likes of the CBA.

"Infront offered a very high but in retrospect unrealistic price four years ago, which was beyond the reach of others. However, it led to the losses we have suffered in recent years," he said.

Despite some of the limitations of the market, Ma said he was confident he could grow revenue over time.

"The country has at least 300 million sports fans, and 80 percent of the Chinese population watch sports on television. There is also a huge new middle class of more than 150 million, which has vast spending power and also a great interest in international and domestic brands," he said.

Much of the sports industry is still dominated by the legacy of the Olympics in which Ma played such a key part.

Revenues of sports marketing agencies jumped nearly 70 percent in 2008, according to international consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (although they were forecast to drop 30 percent last year).

"The Olympics galvanized the sports marketing industry into action and made the powers-that-be appreciate that State-administered sports marketing has its limitations," he said.

Ma believes sports marketing in China will only develop by adopting the tools widely used in Europe and the United States of establishing workable contracts, sponsor servicing, event presentation and good television coverage

"The many complexities of this task are new to China and a lot of heavy lifting is still to be done," he said.

Source: China Daily
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