China’s Five Obstacles – 3) Facilities

FacilitiesThe Mumbler looks at facilities in the third of five articles summarising the hurdles China must overcome to reach its ambitious and well-publicized targets within football.

A place to play football is an understandable requirement for any budding footballer. It’s about as essential as students to a teacher, a plane to a pilot, or a reality TV show to a wannabe celebrity.

But the Chinese hopefuls have to settle for limited facilities of generally poor quality and/or at a monopolised price.

Personal experience suggests that the opportunities to kick a football in anger are very much limited in Shanghai’s city centre. The densely populated metropolis hardly lends itself to enabling a group of people comparative to its population playing football regularly, if at all.

For example, it would cost £69 to hire half an 11-a-side artificial pitch for an hour in downtown Shanghai. That’s a Government owned facility of low quality, surrounded by an athletics track often occupied by the general public who prefer to walk both forwards and backwards in a circle instead of along the street.

The cost per match to use a grass pitch of respectable to good quality is as follows:

  • Jinqiao > £230
  • Waigoaqiao and Century Park > £460 – £574 (members) or £690 – £920 (non-members)

The sports field in Jinqiao, Shanghai.

Those are the three pitches often used during the weekends here in Shanghai. Century Park is the venue used by visiting International sides as well as Man Utd when they were preparing for their recent friendly against Borussia Dortmund.

The above prices don’t compare too well to the hiring of a grass pitch in England, which is around £50-60 per match. Just a quarter of Jinqiao’s rate.

A lack of alternatives in Shanghai increases not only the costs to hire but also the usage. Someone trying to overcome that challenge is American, Adam Christy, owner of Grass Masters Shanghai. During his nine years of building, designing and maintaining athletic fields, he’s noticed the city’s pitches are deteriorating much faster than in the U.S. “Fields in Shanghai are used at a rate of 30-40+ hours a week compared to the U.S. which is around half of that.”

China suffer in comparison to the UK when it comes to playing facilities, however, the reverse is true when it comes to accessing all live Premier League matches. China benefits from the business model of ‘charge a lot a little’. The UK experience quite the opposite with Sky TV customers paying an extra £27.50 per month to add the Sky Sports channels. I on the other hand paid just £23 for the entire season last year. That included my choice of every Premier League match, while Chinese apps provided free access to Champions League, Europa League as well as select FA Cup and La Liga matches. It’s hardly surprising that the Chinese are more governed towards being spectators than players.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy to charge a high rate when the matches are on between 7:45 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. And yes, I am stupid enough to watch football at that time.


Yu Lingxiao and Jason Zhen during the China Football Summit.

During the China Football Summit 2016 (CFS), a panel including Yu Lingxiao of Super Sports and Jason Zhen of IDG Capital stated that the post-90s generation is less inclined to participate in physical activity. Their fondness of the Internet means they prefer to play online instead.

This is very much driven by a combination of the competitive education system and the lack of opportunities to participate in sports both indoors and out. Subsequently, this has led to an increase in child obesity.

According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission
, the figure for obese children and adolescents (ages 6 to 17) in 2002 was 2.1%. In ten years, the report claimed that figure grew to 6.4% and there’s been little sign since of that subsiding.

The article also included the following comments by Liang Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 10.07.30The rapid rise in living standards in the past few decades has contributed to the spike in both obesity and chronic diseases.
  • China has moved from a period of severe food shortages in the 1970s to a time of plenty.
  • Fundamental changes in lifestyles and working practices, such as the popularity of cars and computers result in lower levels of physical activity.
  • A shortage of facilities means students don’t get enough physical exercise at school, which is leading to rising levels of obesity among school-age children.

Those who do participate in physical activity tend to prefer basketball. Why? Because they can play it regularly.

In developed cities, where outdoor space comes at a premium, it is common to see a scattering of basketball courts. At schools, you’re far more likely to see half a dozen basketball courts than you are a football pitch of any description.

Mini basketball court

A local mini-basketball court.

For instance, there’s a public basketball court just down the road from where I live. It’s not a standard sized court, but instead two smaller half-courts put together. This encourages a three-on-three half court game, which means 12 people at one time can use the facility. This is around 15m x 12m (180 sq.m.) whereas a full-size court would be 28m x 15m (420 sq.m.). Meanwhile, the minimum dimensions of a six-a-side football pitch are 20m x 40m (800 sq.m.).

Lv Lei, a planning supervisor for Yutang Sports, revealed during the CFS that there are ten times as many basketball courts as there are football pitches in China.

It’s understandable given that to play basketball you only need a hoop on a wall, of which there are plenty in the concrete jungle that is Shanghai.

Also at the CFS, Professor Liu Dongfeng from Shanghai University stated that London has 25 times more football pitches per 10,000 people than Shanghai. He also said that China plans to increase the number of its football pitches from 10,000 to 70,000 (600% increase) as part of its football reform.

But where will these pitches go? There has been talk of utilising the space currently occupied by near empty golf courses – a sport with a very high status and therefore high costs. But those are primarily on the outskirts of cities.

Century Park

Century Park, where Man Utd have trained.

To play at the weekend on grass pitches, my team and I could travel from 30 minutes to nearly two hours by car, depending on which pitch in addition to the weekend traffic. It’s not quite the same as popping to your local park in England.

Finding space to build football pitches in developed cities is extremely difficult. The dense populations make the financial benefits of building a block of flats too hard to resist. But, the start of a possible solution could be the number of schools specialising in football, should they increase from 5,000 to 20,000 as planned by 2020.

Presumably these schools would have the facilities to play football indoors and/or out which means good news for those students. Then there’s the public. The facilities could be promoted for public use during evenings and weekends at a low price or even free if the local government is feeling particularly generous. The idea that schools and society should share football pitches has been mooted and it makes complete sense. After all, the pitches are unlikely to be occupied during school/work hours if they’re only available to the public.

So while there’s the land to develop these 60,000 extra football pitches, there isn’t necessarily the convenience. And within a culture that demands so much of its students, a place to play football outside of school hours can’t really be anymore than 30 minutes from home.

The infrastructure of China’s developed cities and their resulting populations mean it will never reach its full potential. But when you’re talking about a nation with around 350,000 schools, getting anywhere close should be enough to see China impose itself on the football world. They just need somewhere to play.