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What role do CSL clubs play in their home cities? Case studies of Guangzhou Evergrande and Yanbian Fude

By Nong Ruowen Thursday, 30 Nov 2017 23:46

The 2016/2017 Chinese Super League (CSL) finished on November 4, 2017, with 16 teams competing in the league and Guangzhou Evergrande bringing home their seventh championship trophy. On the other hand, Yanbian Fude and Liaoning Whowin both confirmed their relegation to China League One for next season after finishing in the bottom two places in the CSL. 

For the 2016/17 season, the 16 teams were based in 14 cities, which can be divided into four tiers according to a list released by China Business Network. According to this list, we can see that 5 teams from the 2016/2017 season are from first-tier cities (Beijing Guoan, Shanghai Shenhua, Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F) with 9 teams belonging to second-tier cities. Hebei China Fortune are based in the third-tier city of Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province while Yanbian Fude, based in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, is the only team from a fourth-tier city. 

Given that the 16 teams have traditionally competed at the top level of China’s football league, we can consider all of them as “big clubs” in China. However, their home cities are experiencing different economic situations. Then, what role are these clubs playing in their home cities? 


Guangzhou is a city in Southern China with a heated passion for football for many decades. Two teams, Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F, played in the 2016/2017 CSL with the former being one of the flagship clubs of China’s professional football. Up to now, Guangzhou Evergrande have captured 7 CSL championships and won the AFC Champions League twice, in 2013 and 2015. 

However, it has only taken 8 years for the team to achieve these titles, beginning with the takeover by a powerful Guangzhou-headquartered enterprise, Guangzhou Evergrande Group, in 2010. It was the year that the team were relegated to the second division as a punishment because of their involvement in a match-fixing scandal in 2006. 

Once the team were fully under control by the Evergrande Group, they recruited a number of elite players backed by the Group’s strong financial support, such as Team China national team members Gao Lin, Zheng Zhi and Sun Xiang, as well as Brazilian striker Luiz Muriqui. The Korean coach Lee Jang-Soo was also recruited as the head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande at the same time. All of these transfers led to a “rebirth” of Guangzhou Evergrande and opened a new chapter in the team’s journey and Guangzhou’s football history. 

The passion shown by Guangzhou’s fans and its developed local economy has fostered the Guangzhou Evergrande we see today, making it into a new brand of the city of Guangzhou. In return, the team has also become a new incentive channel in engaging more people in Guangzhou and even around China to watch and play football, as well as boosting some industries in Guangzhou such as the tourism industry.

Prior to the home leg of the 2015 AFC Champions League Final staged in Guangzhou’s Tianhe Sports Center, the city was overwhelmed with the Guangzhou Evergrande colors appearing everywhere inspired by the passion of Guangzhou’s residents. They could not wait to witness their beloved team triumphing in Asia’s top continental club football competition to add to their domestic success that same season and so did Guangzhou Evergrande’s fans living outside Guangzhou. 

Thanks to the die-hard fans coming to the game from other cities or provinces, the city saw a surge in its tourism industry. Alongside increases in transportation consumption, the price of the hotels near the Tianhe Sports Center, had more or less risen. 


Although it is far behind the home cities of the other 15 CSL clubs in terms of its economic conditions, Yanbian is a region with a deep history of football in China. Yanbian is also famous for its residents’ passion and loyalty to the sport of football and their football club, no matter how it performs in the Chinese leagues. 

However, competing in the CSL has never been a “normal status” for the team. Since the CSL was inaugurated in 2004, Yanbian FC has only played in the top-flight of the Chinese league for 2 seasons (2015-2017). Restricted by Yanbian’s economic conditions and the management system of the club, there are much more challenges Yanbian FC have to face other than Guangzhou Evergrande or other CSL teams have to deal with.

The first challenge they met is the difficulty in attracting sponsors to support the club. In the opinion of potential sponsors, the market size of a team’s home city is a crucial factor to consider before they decide whether to sponsor a team or not. Obviously, Yanbian is much less attractive than the home cities of the other CSL teams. Fortunately, some Yanbian-based enterprises have sponsored the team over the past few years but failed in revitalizing the team. This could be due to the second challenge the team faced, the management system of the team over the years. 

Since the Jilin men’s football team, the predecessor of Yanbian FC, was established in 1955, the Sports Bureau of Yanbian (SBY) has been acting as the owners of the team and have managed the team in an administrative way. Some sponsors have reportedly tried to transform the club into joint-stock ownership, but the SBY rejected the change in the way they manage the team until 2015, when the team was relegated to the third-tier league in the 2014-15 season.

In an official statement released by the SBY in 2015, the administrative body finally stated that they would agree to make the team as a joint-stock club if they had a “sincere sponsor”. And the change eventually happened in 2016, when Shenzhen Fude Group became the club’s sponsor and bought 70% shares in the team. This deal turned the team into a real “professional” club, although it came a bit too late. 

Due to the challenges and problems faced, Yanbian Fude does not seem to have made a big difference in the economic conditions in their home city of Yanbian. However, its endeavor in changing its stereotype and failing in keeping its position in the CSL, is still affecting the club’s loyal fans in Yanbian. In their eyes, Yanbian Fude is also the pride of their home city. 


It is not hard to see that a CSL team might always have an emotional effect on residents in their home cities no matter how the team performs in the league or whether the city is top-tier, second-tier or even a fourth-tier one. However, whether the club can have an economic effect on their home city might depend on other factors, such as the team’s performance, the city’s attractiveness in business and other objective factors. In this perspective, love is not everything. 

Proofread by Raymond Fitzpatrick

Tags: CSL Evergrande


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