Scott Longley – The Asian handicap – Will betting companies learn to trust Chinese football?

With the rise of Chinese football and clubs in the Chinese Super League becoming financial powerhouses meaning that a flurry of talent has made its way there and will continue to do so, the question of betting on matches in the league becomes more prominent. 

Scott Longley
Scott Longley

With past corruption charges still looming over the CSL however, Scott Longley  asks if bookmakers are still wary of including it in their sportsbooks. 

The direction of travel when it comes to China and football betting has traditionally been from east to west. The biggest sportsbooks in the world are Asian-facing, but the vast majority of their wagers take place on European football, with the English Premier League being the most popular betting medium.

But as SBC News’ football betting expert Jeevan Jeyaratnam said a fortnight ago, the football landscape in China is changing dramatically and this ultimately could have an effect on how it comes to be viewed by punters. Specifically, the injection of cash into the Chinese Super League and the influx of foreign superstars has changed perceptions about football in China and will almost certainly mean that betting interest will increase.

The enthusiasm for the CSL will be tempered, however, by the recent history of football development in China, littered as it is with instances of corruption and match-fixing.

The problems with Chinese football go right to the top. Even by football’s failing administrative standards, the sport’s history in China is chequered. According to a report from Transparency International compiled late last year, the country’s Football Association fails the test for basic levels of disclosure. Looking at the information published on the CFA’s website, TI found that of the four categories of basic information made publicly available – financial accounts, organisational statutes, annual activity report or code of conduct – the CFA made available only the latter.

The Chinese government has long recognised the country has problems with endemic corruption in football. The campaign to clean up Chinese football dates back to 2009 when the authorities set out to combat what it termed “illegal gambling and corruption”. In February 2013 two former soccer chiefs were among a total of 58 former officials and players – including a former World Cup referee – that were found guilt of bribery charges. On top of the arrests, 12 clubs were fined and docked points for historical instances of match-fixing, including previous league champions Shenhua who were found guilty of match-fixing on route to their 2003 league title.

Alongside the influx of money and the superstar talent, the Chinese government also published a 50-point root-and-branch reform plan in March 2015 that expressly set the country on course to not only improve its domestic football but also targeted a potential bid to host the World Cup.

Official backing counts in China, as the short history of the most successful – and now defunct – football club in China proves. Dalian Shide FC won eight league titles and three Chinese FA Cups between 1994 and 2013. But after the billionaire owner Xu Ming was caught up in the Bo Xilai corruption scandal (both are now in prison), the club was swallowed up by rival club Dalian Aerbin and ceased to exist.

Such stories have historically lessened the enthusiasm for Chinese football among the betting public and even with higher-profile, it is the quality of the product on offer that for now is more likely to hold back the European punters. The mix of journeymen and the odd potentially over-the-hill European imports might not be all that enticing to a European audience, although the evidence of Oddschecker would suggest that all the major European bookmakers are now offering a full suite of odds on CSL league games.

Mirio Mella, Pinnacle Sports

Pinnacle Sports confirmed that it’s seeing increasing interest in CSL games. Customer Engagement Manager Mirio Mella said: “We’ve seen steady year-on-year growth in Chinese Super League pre-game, largely split between an Asian/EuroAsian audience – with localised interest in the teams and the league – and our informed bettors for whom the personalities are largely irrelevant, but who are looking for value opportunities.”

He added: “The significant player acquisition by Chinese Super League teams is likely to have the effect of increasing the casual punter interest beyond a regional audience to become more global. We would expect wagering to increase in step.”

Further, the most recent television deal does indeed mark a step-change in terms of both money and interest. The five-year agreement with China Sports Media – whose holding company also invested in Manchester City late last year – was worth £850m, dwarfing the previous deal of circa £6m. Meanwhile, the new media giants such as Tencent and Alibaba are on the hunt for content and will likely leap at the chance to stream the CSL to a football-hungry domestic audience. The official 50-point plan for football says as much, suggesting a market should be established that enabled the “convergence of traditional and new media”.

This exposure will have an effect. Most obviously, the money trickling down to the clubs and the players via the broadcast deals will cut down the possibility of corruption, at least as far as match-fixing is concerned. Pinnacle’s Mella said: “There is generally a strong correlation between commercial maturity and exposure, and governance. This would certainly suggest that as more money flows into the Chinese Super League – and with it commercial interest – scrutiny increases, raising the level of integrity.”

But it also means the Chinese government is likely to become even more averse to any scandals affecting an area in which the country’s rulers from President Xi down have set so much store. To say the least, a high-profile match-fixing scandal wouldn’t be the best backdrop for the ongoing anti-corruption drive.

It likely poses some tricky questions for the Asian-based and Asian-focused bookies. The usual cloak of silence that envelopes the Asian industry means we are never likely to learn how their own customers view the rise of Chinese football. However, it would form something of a back-handed compliment for the Chinese approach to football if there is widespread demand for betting on the CSL, suggesting there is a growing faith that Chinese football is no longer as prone as previously to match-fixing.

We also know there are likely to be competitive pressures. As per the Oddschecker scan, industry-leaders bet365 definitely offers betting on CSL matches, and even if some might feel it prudent for the Asian-based bookies to be warier, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t offer the product if there was a noticeable demand.

The crucible would certainly seem to be all set. We have profile, money, media attention and official government sanction already in the mix, to which we can likely add domestic betting interest. How all these factors intermingle in the months and years to come will likely be as much of a spectacle as anything on the pitch.

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