Big Trouble In Little China?

By Richard Barker
Last updated : 20 October 2009

A Hong Kong billionaire is set to buy Blues. Actually, he's got no money. Actually, he's just buying a share of Blues because he can't raise the funds for the rest. Oh, the manager's decided it's ridiculous that this new guy won't agree to him getting a new contract so he's gone to Wigan. The billionaire's now been shown up as a joker with no money, but he still owns nearly 30% of the club. Still, he's been shown up, so we won't let him have a seat in the Director's Box. He has to buy his own Executive Box down towards the corner flag.

Etc, etc.

Frankly, it was all so absurd that no one really gave much thought to the 'what ifs'. What if this actually happened?

Then, a few months ago, it all started off again. With what had happened last time so fresh in the mind, again, people just tended to go along with it almost in the background. We'd seen it and heard it all before - it was all just recycled news.

It was serious this time though, and as we all now know, Birmingham City Football Club is in the hands of Yeung, Grandtop, etc. So, no need for 'what ifs' - there is no 'if' now. It's happened. So, what now? Have people really given much thought to that?

I must confess that, until the past few days, I hadn't. As I've said, it was all just kind of happening in the background. I was aware it was going on and that it would change things, but a bit like when a General Election goes on and the opposition wins, whilst there's change in power, when you wake up the next day, everything's the same. You only start to notice changes in the long-term. Nothing changes in the here and now.

I have given the long-term a little more thought in the past few days though, and I must admit that I have a few concerns.

These concerns mainly stem from the fact that this foreign takeover feels different to others.

Foreign ownership looks great, doesn't it? Look at Chelsea's trophy haul in the past seven or eight years and Portsmouth's FA Cup success and Manchester City's current Harlem Globetrotter-esque squad (which will no doubt continue to expand with more and more quality).

These owners, plus the Americans at Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa, have all spent/invested their money either with the intention of personal glory (Abramovich) or personal gain (the Americans). It's all been done on an individual basis, or involving very small groups.

The new ownership at Blues, however, looks different. Carson Yeung appears to be a figurehead for a larger group - an amalgamation of people and institutions that have come together and formed themselves as an "owner" of a Premier League football club.

When you read quotes and the (threadbare) plans that have come out of this group, it appears that a key aim that they have is to almost corner the Chinese market - for China, as a country, to have a Premier League football club. Now, this is where my concern lies.

Roman Abramovich didn't set out to corner the Russian market so that the whole of Russia would see Chelsea as "theirs". Malcolm Glazer didn't set out to corner the American market so that the whole of the United States of America would see Manchester United as "theirs". None of the other foreign owners have attempted to do this, as yet (with the possible exception of Thaksin Shinawatra at Manchester City, but that all crumbled because of the individual concerned).

This is the first time that foreign owners have acquired an English football club with a nation's interests apparently in mind, rather than their own.

That is my concern.

Football, and predominantly English football, is huge in Asia. I speak from experience from my only two trips to the region and meeting people there who are able to hold in-depth conversations with me, not just about Chelsea and Arsenal, but about Birmingham City. There are people in Walsall who know less about Blues than huge numbers in Thailand.

It's not just that the people in Asia are obsessed with the Premier League, but they are desperate to feel like they're involved in it and to taste it, whether that's having a team play in the region in a pre-season tournament or having your photo taken with a Premier League player or owning the shirt of a Premier League club.

So, to come full circle, isn't that exactly why China would want to have "their own" Premier League football club? For that association? To make it feel more real?

The Chinese people have known about the Premier League for a while. It's not a new thing for them. You can't say, "ok, look, there's this new sensation over in England called the Premier League, and you are all going to support Birmingham City". We're not starting from scratch. They already support Manchester United and Liverpool and Chelsea and Arsenal.

With the greatest respect to Carson Yeung and his associates, Blues having Chinese owners isn't going to convince the Chinese population to trade in their '10 ROONEY' shirts for '8 O'CONNOR' ones. Simply owning Blues is not enough.

For the plan to conquer (or even have a slight impact upon) China to succeed, the new owners are going to have to do something to capture the imagination of the Chinese. Sod the twenty thousand Blues fans who go to St Andrews most weeks - we're dealing with billions of people now.

Chinese players have come and gone in the Premier League. Li Tie at Everton. Zheng Zhi at Charlton. Sun Jihai at Manchester City. Only the latter can claim to have been any sort of success.

Everton are sponsored by a Chinese beer, and have been for some time now.

The attempts at tapping into the Chinese market have been going on for a while. Having Chinese owners isn't going to be sufficient to convince a football mad population to switch allegiances. Think about it. It isn't, is it? It's going to take a lot more than Stuart Parnaby, Beau Brummie, Roy Aitken, Jasper Carrott and the Main Stand to conquer China.

That, in my mind, is the concern. The intention appears to be for Birmingham City Football Club to not only be recognised in China, but almost to be a club for China. China finally now owns a Premier League football club - they'll expect something to come out of it.

In that respect, my concern really is the unknown.

Just how many Chinese players are we likely to sign? At first I found the thought of us signing Chinese players just because of the new owners absurd. Thinking about it though, it's far from it. If Blues want to be supported in China, the Chinese fans will want to see Chinese players playing for "their" club. I'd say that it's a nailed on certainty that within the next eighteen months there'll be at least three Chinese players on the books.

In some ways, when you think about it, where will it end? Chinese manager? A Premier League home game in Shanghai? Honestly, again, you may think that sounds ridiculous, but think about it for a second. Is it? What better way to impress yourself upon a distant fanbase than to play a proper game there? It's not so long ago that the Premier League was discussing foreign league games. I suspect that I know one club who shall be fully behind the idea next time it's mooted.

The fact is, for Yeung and Grandtop's plan to work they're going to have to do something to capture the imagination of their target market. The target market now appears to be China. Them owning the club isn't going to mean shirts are sold in Beijing meaning that Birmingham City Football Club's income from merchandise increases meaning that Yeung and Grandtop own a more valuable asset. They need to do more than own the club. They're going to have to.

Sure, they may spend a bit of cash over the next few years and Blues may even finish seventh or something (well, we can all dream…) Even that won't be enough though, will it? Blues finishing seventh isn't going to capture the imagination of the Chinese people when Manchester United are winning the Champions League.

They have three choices:

Either, they spend £350m to turn Blues into a European superpower meaning that the whole of China takes to the club because of its success, buys the shirts, subscribes to the TV channel and all the rest of it.

Or, they carry on as Blues have done for a while, maybe stepping up to the plate a little more when it comes to investment, meaning Blues establish themselves in the top flight and finish around mid-table for a few years.

Or, they turn the club into one that the Chinese population can associate with more, by bringing in some Chinese players, Chinese sponsors, possibly a Chinese manager, playing friendlies in China, perhaps even playing a league game over there.

Well, Option A is not going to happen.

Option B may happen, but how on earth would that help them with their aim of tapping into the Chinese market when you're up against worldwide superclubs?

And that leaves Option C.

I am not saying that this will happen. If it does, maybe it'll be fun for a while, and that'd be nice, wouldn't it? However, if you do think about it, something like that is the only way that the new owners are going to be successful with their aims. They're not here for us, and anyone who thinks that they are is mad. They're here for themselves, and to that end, they need Birmingham City Football Club to be marketable in China. They need to turn the club into a little part of China.

How will they do that? Well, who knows, but that is my concern.

If we spend a bit of money in January and stop up comfortably, great. If we then spend in the summer and finish in the top half of the table next season, great again.

I'm not necessarily saying that this will happen overnight. I'm not even saying that this will happen. It's just a collection of musings.

As I've said above, like any General Election, we'll only know the full picture five to ten years down the line. My fear is that after that time, we may not have a Birmingham City Football Club that any of us recognise any more.

I hope I'm wrong, but that's my fear.

Birmingham City Match Reports

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