Football in China: New hub for new technologies in the service of new politics

Football in China: New hub for new technologies in the service of new politics

Recently, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has announced that it wants to “learn” from the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and other developed football countries to launch new technologies such as the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and a professional referee system in 2018. The VARs communicate with the main referee on the pitch and review their decisions to avoid “clear errors”.

VAR in action. The technology was first tested in the USA between two reserve teams of Major League Soccer clubs – New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B – in August of 2016. (Source: FIFA)

The official motto of the CFA is: “Go out, and please come back” (Zǒu chūqù, qǐng jìnlái). This means that the CFA is promoting international exchanges and encourages Chinese referees to learn from foreign partners. In addition, the CFA is investing in new technologies in order to improve the quality of Chinese referees. This simply means – no more and no less – to transfer know-how to China.

This matter could give the impression that Chinese football is technologically lagging behind in many aspects. This is, however, not correct.

A good example of how advanced the technologies in Chinese football are is demonstrated by a company called Whaley Technology. The company is using the internet and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies to broadcast sports competitions. VR is a computer technology that creates a realistic perception of images, sounds and other sensations by using headsets or other technical devices. The technology simulates the user a physical presence in an imaginary environment. In May 2017, the Chinese Super League (CSL) match between Chongqing Lifan and Henan Jianye was the first football match in China that was broadcasted live with VR technology.

Whaley Technology was founded by Li Ruigang, the chairman of China Media Capital (CMC), in April 2015. According to Bloomberg, CMC is a private equity and venture capital firm that “prefers to invest in the cultural, technology, media, entertainment, consumer, medical treatment, telecommunication, internet, mobile, and middle-class lifestyle sectors” in China and abroad.

In August 2015, CMC partnered with Alibaba Group and Tencent, to invest RMB 2 billion (US$ 304 million) into Whaley Technology, only a few months after the company was founded.

In December 2015, a consortium led by CMC agreed to pay US$ 400 million for a 13 percent minority stake in City Football Group, the owners of Manchester City, among other football clubs. It is therefore not surprising that Manchester City announced in May 2016 that Whaley Technology will become the official TV partner of the club in China.

The user of VR technology can experience stadium atmosphere in the living room.

In April 2016, Ti’ao Dongli, another subsidiary of CMC that acquired the CSL broadcasting rights for five consecutive seasons (2016-2020) for a record of RMB 8 billion (about US$ 1.19 billion), and Whaley Technology announced that they will introduce VR technologies to their football broadcasting business.

In the same month as Whaley Technology has announced that it will introduce VR technologies to their football broadcasting business, the National Development and Reform Commission, a macroeconomic management agency under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, issued a new reform programme called The Medium and Long-Term Development Plan of Chinese Football (2016-2050). In this reform programme, it is required to promote the deep integration of the internet technology with the football industry and to focus on the introduction of the mobile internet, e-commerce, Big Data and other new technologies and formats. All this is only the beginning of a scientific and technological revolution that will dramatically change football, and not only football, it will change our lives.

Ilker Gündogan

Ilker Gündogan is a PhD candidate at the Ruhr-University Bochum and the ESSCA School of Management. His research focuses on China’s football politics and market creation in the era of Xi Jinping.
Ilker Gündogan

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