If you’ve spent the last week focused on continuing machinations behind the closed doors of Zhongnanhai - where if we believe the rumours to be true, the Party has been pulling itself apart at the seams in order to piece itself back together again - you might have missed the biggest news of the month. That was of course, Huawei’s decision to sponsor the Canberra Raiders Rugby League Team.
The decision to hand over a cool US$1.8 million to see their logo adorning the shirts of a fairly unknown team - certainly to anyone outside of Australia - may have confused you at first. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the move has everything to do with the Australian government’s decision to turn Huawei’s bid to work on the rollout of a national broadband network. Rather than having a hissy fit and storming back to the firm’s mega campus in Shenzhen, they chose instead to sponsor the Raiders.
The reason is simple. Huawei hopes to ingratiate itself with the locals and throw off its image as an instrument of the PLA, something it has repeatedly failed to do despite a string of attempts in the past and which continues to hamper its expansion into developed markets.
Disregarding Huawei Australia CEO’s outlandish claim that “with Huawei’s 140,000 staff, it’s safe to say that the Raiders have just gained 140,000 new fans around the world”, it does look like a canny piece of PR. It’s sending the right message: you turned us down but we’re not going anywhere; in fact we’re so mad about Australia we’re going to sponsor your rather mid rate rugby league team. This week a team, next week the entire League perhaps?
Foreign companies sponsoring sports teams is nothing new of course. As economic power has shifted West to East, we’ve seen a correlated increase in the number of Western teams sponsored by Eastern firms. Just look at the English premiership. The Japanese were at it in the 1980s – JVC sponsored Arsenal, Sharp sponsored Manchester Utd, and er…Crown Paints sponsored Liverpool (woops). The Koreans adorn the Chelsea shirt in the shape of Samsung, while Arab nations are now well represented via Emirates’ sponsorship of Arsenal and Etihad’s of Manchester City.
But up until now, we haven’t seen too many examples (at least not to China Brain’s knowledge) of Chinese companies sponsoring Western teams. In the same way Chinese demand has raised prices for assets in the past, should we expect to see a similar effect occurring in sports sponsorship? We wouldn’t be surprised to see representatives of the many teams who are struggling financially in these times of austerity heading over to China. Much in the same way business junkets continue to arrive on a daily basis attempting to flog all and sundry to the Chinese, who’s to say that they won’t succeed where others have failed? It’s just a shame for Glasgow Rangers that Scotland’s oil has run out, otherwise we would be fairly confident of seeing PetroChina’s or CNOOC’s name on the shirt and an easy way out of their insolvency crisis.
Huawei has made a bold first foray into foreign sports and it is once again blazing the trail for Chinese firms overseas. Its first task is to test whether the Raiders will really live up to the company’s vision, which according to its web site is ‘To enrich life through communication’. Anyone who’s shared more than a few drinks with a representative of an Australian Rugby League team will affirm that their communication style can certainly be colourful. Enriching might be stretching it a bit though. Good on yer’ Huawei.