Hot on the heels of Ruhr district heavyweights Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04, record champions FC Bayern München took off for the Far East in mid-July. The 12-day jaunt, with stop-offs in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Singapore, is Bayern's fifth summer tour taking in China, where their fan base has been exponentially growing in recent years.
Hundreds of local devotees decked out in red were on hand to give the visitors a rapturous welcome when they touched down in Shanghai. “Amazing enthusiasm, wow,” World Cup winner Thomas Müller summarised succinctly. Acknowledging such long-range trips in the pre-season “clearly pose a problem for any coach,” club president Uli Hoeneß noted nonetheless that, “All the big clubs are doing the same. It's not enough to just keep talking about internationalization. If you want to work these new markets, you have to go to where the fans are.”
Bayern are accordingly doing just that in tandem with Dortmund and Schalke, probably the two other German clubs with the highest international profile. For Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) CEO Christian Seifert, “China, with its 500 million football fans, is a mine of opportunity for the Bundesliga and its clubs,” while Jörg Daubitzer, head of Bundesliga International GmbH, views the game more generally as an ongoing “growth market worldwide.”
Germany is set to benefit even more from that growing interest in the years to come. As just one example, the DFL has entered into a media partnership with China's Suning Commerce Group which will earn the league 250 million euro over five years from 2018/19 – some 2.8 million euro per club, per season. Little wonder, then, that Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc found there was “no alternative” to this summer's trip to Japan and China.
The sporting schedule, at any rate, was “absolutely no problem” for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, with quality opposition lined up in the form of Arsenal FC, AC and Inter Milan, and English champions Chelsea FC. As well as everything being “arranged in consultation with (head coach) Carlo Ancelotti,” the Bayern chairman said new signings such as James Rodriguez “can integrate well on a tour like this. And it shouldn't be forgotten that when we return, there are still three weeks to prepare for the start of the Bundesliga.”
Dortmund and Schalke are doubtless thinking along very similar lines. Following in the bootsteps of the big three, other Bundesliga clubs are also waking up to China's enormous potential. As well as acquiring the services of Yuning Zhang, Werder Bremen have brokered a deal with a Chinese online games provider. Hamburger SV and 1. FC Köln have already established cooperative agreements with Chinese Super League clubs – and as of March, VfL Wolfsburg have their own office in Shanghai. The Bundesliga's Far East fascination is no passing fancy.