A pedestrian passes a wall mural showing a comic book character holding a soccer ball ahead of the World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

At Russia’s First World Cup, China Inc.’s All Over the Pitch

(Bloomberg) -- There will be no Chinese team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but when the tournament starts Thursday at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, spectators will see six Chinese teenagers bearing FIFA flags and leading players onto the field.

The flag-carriers, chosen by tournament sponsor Dalian Wanda Group Co., are part of China’s record promotional blitz at an event that’s expected to draw 3.5 billion television viewers in more than 200 countries, Zenith, a media planning arm of Publicis Groupe SA, said in its report on the World Cup. Chinese brands will account for more than a third of the estimated $2.4 billion in additional advertising spending worldwide related to the month-long tournament, Zenith estimates.

“What really struck me is how big a deal the World Cup is in China this year,” said Jonathan Barnard, an executive at Zenith who helped compile the report. “It seems to be a new phenomenon. Brands are scrambling to create an association between themselves and sports, in this case football in particular. The associations don’t exist yet.”

The sport’s rising commercial profile contrasts with the performance of the national team, which qualified for only one World Cup in 2002, where it didn’t score a single goal. Yet China has signaled it wants to host the tournament and counts President Xi Jinping as a promoter of the sport.

Some of China’s biggest brands, including Dalian Wanda, television and appliances maker HiSense, smartphone manufacturer Vivo, electronic scooter maker Yadea and China Mengniu Dairy signed on with FIFA as sponsors for the event at a crucial time when support from other countries had been waning relative to previous tournaments.

Such sponsorship deals don’t include money spent on advertising related to the tournament. For that, Chinese companies will splash out an additional $835 million, Zenith estimates.

“This World Cup is the biggest and most important marketing window for Chinese brands," said Zhao Jun, president of China Sports Media. “More and more brands have come to realize the benefits of sports advertising.” China Sports Media has struck deals with Portugal’s national team to promote a cosmetics brand, and with Argentina’s squad for an online peer-to-peer lending platform, Zhao said.

While China last qualified for a World Cup in 2002, the country’s television audience for the sport is expected to be large this year. Moscow is five hours earlier than Beijing, meaning Chinese fans will be able to watch afternoon games televised live in prime evening hours.

China Central Television, which owns exclusive rights to broadcast all the matches in the country, described ad sales around the event as “a historical breakthrough” in a statement on its official WeChat account.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board

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