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New football facility in Hainan as China's sports dream takes shape

FC Barcelona will be a strategic financial partner and will provide coaching expertise at the Haikou Football Training Base, which aims to be a centre for China's national team and top clubs.  

DONGGUAN, China: The Mission Hills Group, which runs the world's largest golf club in southern China's Guangdong province, is developing a football training headquarters in neighbouring Hainan.

It plans to make the Haikou Football Training Base a centre for China's national team and top clubs. Spanish professional football club FC Barcelona will be a strategic financial partner and will provide coaching expertise at the new academy. 

Speaking at the recent LeSports Connects forum in Dongguan, Mission Hills' group vice-chairman Tenniel Chu told Channel NewsAsia: "China has a dream that it'll have more than 30 million active footballers by 2020 and this is something that we need to complement from the hardware to the software.

"As we’re approaching our Winter Olympics in Beijing and also other major athletic games that’s going to be happening in China, the trend will definitely be growing bigger (with) more mass participation, and the overall population will be much fitter and (more) into the sports industry."

Said Xavier Asensi, the Asia Pacific managing director for FC Barcelona: "I've not seen investments in Chinese football, (but) I've seen Chinese investing in European football. We're planning to do it the other way around. We're going to invest in Chinese football, but not in Chinese football clubs." 

The football centre, as well as its work on German former World No 1 Boris Becker's first tennis academy in China, marks Mission Hills' efforts to branch out into other sports. 

This comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping named sports an important component of the Chinese Dream and the State Council made promoting sports a national strategy in 2014. Last year, sport contributed US$62 billion to the Chinese economy and by 2025, the government wants it to become a US$800 billion industry.

Other examples of how the sports industry has attracted the biggest names in China's business world include Wanda Group. The conglomerate controlled by China's richest man Wang Jianlin has already invested US$2 billion in sports-related acquisitions. 

Jack Ma's Alibaba Group also has plans to set up a fund worth up to US$1.5 billion to focus on investment in sporting facilities.

Even baseball - a relatively obscure sports to the Chinese - is getting interest, with US-based Major League Baseball looking to expand in China.

Chris Park, senior vice-president of Growth, Strategy and International at Major League Baseball, said: "We’re trying to create opportunities for all parts of society to access all aspects of our brand, be it the premier product on the field of the Major League Baseball season, or even just interacting with baseball experiences and introducing our game in informal ways to kids.

"The rate of growth we're seeing (and) the general uptake of our programmes in just a short period of time suggest that we have a pretty bright future here."

Lei Zhenjian, the founder and CEO of LeSports, said: “China has such a large population of sports fans and I think this number will rise, so this huge market means we have a huge potential for growth in future.”