China, Partnerships, Sport Business, Sports Marketing | Jul 14, 2017
Inside the Spanish soccer giant’s strategy for success in Asia.

In February this year, Spanish soccer giants FC Barcelona announced a landmark joint venture with Mission Hills, the Shenzen-based sports, hospitality and leisure company best known as the operator of one of the largest golf and entertainment complexes in the world.

The alliance will see both parties invest in the creation of the first FC Barcelona-managed soccer academy outside Spain – in Haikou, the capital city of China’s Hainan Province – and represents the most significant partnership the club has signed to date in the region.

And that is no throwaway remark. FC Barcelona currently counts 14 Asian companies among its sponsors – including five Chinese entities in smartphone manufacturer Oppo, the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Centre, tech-driven content company BNN Technology, real estate organisation the Shimao Group, and now Mission Hills. FC Barcelona is almost certainly the single most successful international soccer club in China in terms of commercial partnerships.

Xavier Asensi is the Managing Director for Asia Pacific for the club. From its regional headquarters in Hong Kong, he oversees all FC Barcelona business in China and across the region. He spoke to Leaders about the strategy that has served the club so well so far.

  1. Understand your objectives

The FC Barcelona Hong Kong office has been operational for four years. Throughout that period, its mandate has remained clear: to search strategic alliances, partnerships and all other possible revenue streams across the Asia Pacific region, while at the same time increasing brand awareness through locally-appropriate channels and communications means. “Let’s not be naïve,” says Asensi. “Of course we are here because we want to build a strong platform to be able to capitalise on it afterwards. The main purpose is commercial. But this is chicken and egg – brand awareness is capital in terms of being able to monetise afterwards. We’re trying to be seen as as local as possible.”

2. Invest yourself; avoid seeing China as a money-maker

“The issue with football in China is that a lot of the western properties just see China as a money maker,” says Asensi. “We are here to stay. We’re not here to take the money and run. We are the only ones, together with an English club – Man Utd – having a headquarters in Asia Pacific. So we’re investing. There are only two clubs in the world who can say that.”

While there are marketing and sponsorship opportunities available in China and across the Asia Pacific region, Asensi and his team have worked hard to understand how FC Barcelona can assist in the wider national goals China has in soccer. Partnering with Mission Hills, which runs 22 championship golf courses across China, and whose facilities also serve as training bases for the country’s tennis and soccer associations, was a long time in the making. “We invested several million euros with them as well,” says Asensi. “We’re committed to this idea of investing in China, with Chinese people and Chinese companies.”

3. Get boots on the ground and use them

Asensi oversees a team of 14 people in the FC Barcelona Hong Kong office, which includes a mixed workforce of international and local employees, taking care of back office functions, sales representation, activation, design and account management. Being physically present in the region is a commitment that means a lot to the club, and, Asensi believes, is directly responsible for the success FC Barcelona is having in the market. “It’s not just timezone issues we’re avoiding by being here,” he explains, “there are cultural barriers we’re avoiding too. We’re able to have those meetings at 9am. And that’s 9am in all meanings – time-wise, energy-wise, pace-wise, language-wise. The office narrows down the 10,000km that we have between buyer and seller. On our end, it is key. Despite nationalities and different cultures we are all human beings, and we rely on the same things – we all value trustworthiness and confidence, and that is something that proximity can give you. Oppo, for example, is our partner in Shenzen. It’s an hour and 15 minutes away. For them, it’s so important that they’re not buying a huge property from overseas and then just being forgotten about. Actually it’s the opposite. We meet on a weekly basis. Of course you cannot do that in every city in China, but if it’s needed then why not? It’s good to have our partners fairly close. Two hours by plane to Beijing and Shanghai. I think that transmits and it gives a lot of tranquillity and a lot of confidence, which in the end is the base – whether it’s Asia, America, Europe, Africa – of any consistent growth. You will not get big things overnight; you need to plant the seed.”

4. Build year-round presence with a local feel

“In China,” explains Asensi, “you need a partner in order to have something 365 days a year. To enter into a business partnership over here, I think it’s even more complicated than a marriage. With the joint venture it’s the same, and with money up front. Because of cultural differences it’s been difficult to find the right partner. Once we met with the Chu family at Mission Hills, we felt we were on the same page immediately business-wise – same language.

A delegation from Mission Hills and FC Barcelona at a signing ceremony in February.

“They proved themselves to be a huge juggernaut; they are the biggest golf resort in the world. It’s not just about golf, but entertainment and sport in general. They have the first ever Boris Becker tennis academy; they have the biggest movie studios in China. They’ve got the Wet and Wild water park. For us, it felt like a natural partnership. What we have now is the tip of the iceberg. How we’re able to grow from there will define whether we’re super successful or just successful in the next four years.”

      5. Be cognisant to cultural differences and the knowledge gap

Being physically present in the Chinese market has enabled Asensi and his team to tackle head on some of the biggest obstacles to doing business in China. Direct and frequent contact with all levels of government is important for smoothing the barriers to business, and proximity to Chinese counterparts has made it easier to overcome sometimes unexpected education issues. “A lot of times, you have to start from scratch here,” Asensi says. “When you approach corporations, or do certain sports marketing business, you’re used to how Europe and the States works. Here you realise that you have to go ten steps backwards. Another challenge can be the cultural clash. Because it’s worked in other industries and in the past, there can be a thought that it’s possible to do things overnight and that it’s just about investing money.”

Xavier Asensi is MD, Asia Pacific for FC Barcelona. He is also a member of the Advisory Board for the 2017 Beijing edition of the Leaders Sport Business Summit.

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