OUR MAN AMONG the muddied oafs sends word that China’s football champions, Jiangsu FC, has gone out of business. This is an event unimaginable in any other league or even sport. This Bystander cannot imagine, say, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid suddenly ceasing operations, nor, in American football, the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or baseball’s World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers just shutting up shop, no matter how financially stretched they, or their backers, might be.
Chinese football clubs are particularly sponsor-dependent, however. Jiangsu FC’s main backer is the heavily indebted electronic retailer Suning, which is getting a $2.3 billion state-led bailout. This will leave the Nanjing-based retail group 23% controlled by the Shenzhen city government.
Suning has failed to make the transition from bricks and mortar retail to e-commerce. Signs of the football club’s fate were foreshadowed in December when Zhang Jindong, Suning’s billionaire founder whose stake in his company will drop to 16.4% from 24.9% as a result of the bailout, said his company would focus on retail.
The decision to close down Jiangsu FC will be received nervously in Milan. One of the city’s two top teams, Inter Milan, is also owned by Suning. Our man tells us that it is not believed there that Inter, which is currently leading the Italian league, will be shut down, but it is looking for new investors.
Suning had been looking for six months to sell Jiangsu FC but could not find a taker. Authorities are taking a less benign view of the game of late, not seeing it as an avenue for global soft power as strongly as it once did. Interest in China in the domestic game is also less than the interest in foreign leagues and clubs. Sponsorship and TV rights are being scaled back, and costs at all Super League clubs will have to be cut commensurately.