China Increases International Sports Scene


SHANGHAI, China -- China is holding four PGA European Tour events this season -- the same number as the sport's birthplace, Scotland.
Sponsors such as Volvo and Johnnie Walker are pouring millions of dollars into the Chinese tournaments and top players are putting the events on their schedules.
Add a Formula One auto race, the 16-nation Asian Cup soccer tournament and professional tennis and figure skating events, and it would seem that sports is thriving in the country that will host the 2008 Olympics.
But some sports officials and athletes wonder if these major international events are actually harming the development of pro sports in China by siphoning off sponsors, viewers and government money.
Zhang Lin, a professor of sports management at Shanghai's Institute of Physical Education, said frequent broadcasts of European soccer, NBA and other prestigious foreign sports cut into viewership of domestic events.
'People only have a certain amount of time and money to spend and they want to spend it on the best,' Zhang said. 'It has thrown pro sports here into crisis.'
China's top golf pro, Zhang Lianwei, complained recently that Chinese players aren't sharing the wealth brought by international events.
'With no money, you see the other players having steak while you are having bread and spaghetti,' Zhang at last month's China Open in Shanghai. 'You don't have enough power to compete.'
Soccer, by far China's most popular sport, made the country's first push into professional sports with a pro league in 1994.
Today, it's teetering on the brink of collapse.
Attempts by the government-backed Chinese Football Association to revive the sport with a new Super League have been disastrous. After one season, owners are dumping teams, chronic gambling and game-fixing rumors persist and ticket sales are so bad teams can't afford to pay their players.
'These are leagues and teams that are run by rank amateurs and they're now competing for money with international professionals,' said Mark Thomas, managing director of Shanghai-based Vroom Motor Sports Marketing.
In September, Shanghai hosted China's first Formula One Grand Prix at a new $320 million circuit. The track was widely praised while sponsors shoveled in money in hopes of boosting their brands in China's vast and fast-growing market. That no Chinese drivers were on the grid hardly figured into the equation.
Beijing drew top tennis players, including Serena Williams and Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, for WTA Tour events in September and is hosting this month's figure skating Grand Prix Finals.
Vroom's Thomas says the neglect is an outgrowth of the government's obsession with elite sports and the gold medals and prestige they bring. He says that because little money goes into encouraging broad participation at the grass roots, fans 'aren't coming through the turnstiles at professional games.'
The lack of interest is also partly economic -- most Chinese make about $1,000 a year and have little free time, Zhang says. Cultural factors also come into play, he adds, an outgrowth of the age-old preference for intellectual over physical pastimes.
Further complicating matters, China's government still takes the lead on major sports management decisions, appointing heads of athletic associations and deciding what sponsors athletes can choose.
In one questionable decision, Liu Xiang, the gold medalist in the men's 110-meter hurdles at the Athens Olympics, was signed as an ambassador for China's biggest cigarette manufacturer.
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