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Last summer Rayo Vallecano signed a new partnership with the Chinese mobile internet technology company Qbao.com to become the club’s main sponsor. As part of the three-year deal worth a reported € 600,000 per season, the Chinese brand has become the club’s official shirt sponsor.
Qbao is also the main sponsor of Real Sociedad, joining other top-flight football clubs that have partnered with Chinese brands including GWFX with Swansea City, AIA with Tottenham Hotspur and 138.com with Watford FC.
However, this partnership offers much more than traditional sponsorship rights. It has the strategic aim of growing football in China and it is yet another example of the strong marketing penetration of La Liga clubs in the Asian market.
Furthermore, two additional clauses have been included in the contract that make the partnership interesting to analyze from a sports marketing perspective:
1. The team’s participation in a Chinese pre-season tour
Pre-season tours in Asia have become very popular among European football clubs as they have identified lucrative commercial opportunities in this region. Under the agreement Rayo Vallecano participated in a friendly match against Real Sociedad that was played in Naijing, China, joining a list of other prominent clubs in La Liga such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Valencia that played pre-season games in China in 2015.
2. The signing of a Chinese player
The sponsorship agreement included a clause in which Rayo Vallecano had to sign a player from the Chinese league. It has been a controversial point as it has raised the question of having sponsors directly influence over the sporting decisions of a club.
Rayo Vallecano’s coach, Paco Jémez, voiced his discontent in the Spanish media arguing that no commercial partner should interfere with sporting matters in a football club.
Under the agreement Rayo Vallecano was given the option of selecting a player that best fitted their squad, however, the contract clearly stipulated he had to be Chinese.
Eventually, Zhang Chengdong, was presented during the Chinese Tour in the city of Nanjing, home of the Qbao headquarters, becoming the first ever Chinese football player in La Liga. At the time of writing this article, he had not made any official appearances for the first team.
Evidently many of Spain’s clubs are still in a vulnerable financial position and additional revenue from foreign investors and sponsors is vital. At present, 16 of 20 teams in La Liga have Chinese capital and it is reported that for the 2015-16 season the league is managing more than 100 million euros of Chinese investment.
We have seen other examples of strategic player signings such as the Korean Park Ji-sung at Manchester United, Honda from Japan at AC Milan or the recent signing of Arda Turan by FC Barcelona with the aim of penetrating the Turkish market. However all of them were signed by the clubs with sporting and not commercial decisions as the main drivers.
Written by: Michele Tiozzo, Sports Business Institute Barcelona