When the sponsors of the Beijing Olympics signed up to the games, they surely anticipated that China’s appearance on the world stage would be greeted with the occasional rotten tomato. But as the games approach, the tug-of-war between activists, protesters and the Chinese government is threatening, in some regions, to become the main event.
At worst, in the minds of some in Europe and the US, sponsors are complicit in glossing over suppression. Yet inside China itself, narratives about the games are very different. Bearing this in mind, what reception can sponsors anticipate there? During 2007, FDS International, in conjunction with the Iris Network of independent research agencies, conducted telephone and face-to-face interviews more than 9,000 consumers in 16 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia.
The research, which will be published online this month, suggests that Chinese consumers have a very distinctive relationship to sports and sports sponsorship – and that there is much that is positive about engagement with sport in China itself.
The Chinese have an eclectic mix of sports interests. While badminton and table tennis are chart-topping sports in the Olympics host nation, basketball, volleyball, football and snooker also appear in the top ten. In this sense, Chinese sports fans are among the most cosmopolitan in the world, with interests encompassing sports that have their “bases” in Asia, North America and Europe.
Eight out of ten of China’s most-named international stars are themselves Chinese, and there is a strong, albeit self-reported, link between the success of such stars and feelings of national pride.
But when it comes to sports sponsors, indigenous brands do not feature strongly in China, where there is a notably strong showing for Coca-Cola – edging out Nike as China’s most spontaneously-named sports sponsor – and McDonald’s, which scores higher in China than in than any other country studied.
There are also very high levels of participation in sport, and interest in sport, in China. Participation is so high because it is very evenly distributed, with older people, poorer people and women all participating and expressing high levels of interest, where in almost every other country in the study, all these groups have significantly lower participation rates.
In this sense, the Beijing Olympics may be the most inclusive in history, with all demographics of the Chinese population apparently likely to be engaged by the event.
However, just 15% of people in China have actually attended a live sports event in the past year, and those that have tend to be younger, more affluent men. For the great majority, engagement is through television, although reading dedicated sports publications is also popular.
All of the Asian countries studied had higher than average levels on the research’s “pro-sports” and “pro-sponsorship” indices. This implies that these countries will generally present sports sponsors with good value for money in terms of positive associations with sport and a welcoming attitude to corporate sponsorship.
And China stands out as particularly welcoming. For example, Chinese sports fans are second only to their counterparts in Portugal in feeling that they react emotionally to sport, and are the most likely to consider sportspeople to be “role models”. Chinese respondents were also the most likely to agree that sports sponsorship is positive for society and sports fans alike, and there is no great antipathy to the idea of alcohol and tobacco companies sponsoring sports.
The prospect of huge variations in the Olympic sponsors’ return on investment in different countries is a case study in globalisation and fragmentation. Despite almost universal attendance by nation states, perceptions of the way sponsors’ motivations are framed have fractured. The 21st century Olympics has proved itself no more immune than 21st century businesses to the critical interventions of activists, journalists and politicians.
A broader positive feeling about the games – one that taps into the unifying values of the Olympic movement and the enthusiasm of the host nation – now looks impossible in many parts of the world.
Come London 2012 sponsors may look more closely at the aims, and chances, of all the “players” in the games. The research from China shows how complex, and global, an assessment this will have to be.
William Nelson, director of Munro Group’s 3000ft Strategic Insight, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight