CEIBS MBA Entrepreneur Wants To Kick China's Sports Industry Into Shape

After setting up an MBA soccer league at CEIBS, this entrepreneur has plans to improve the sports industry in China. His start-up, which runs a corporate soccer league in Shanghai, is a good start.

When Danny Xu sits back and takes stock of the year that was 2013, he can pour himself a glass of champagne knowing he made the best decision of his career so far. His business life has taken a remarkable turn into the unexpected.
 
That decision came in the summer of 2012, when he was mulling over the decision to ditch a seven-year career in the IT industry, in which he worked for a raft of different companies in mainland China and Japan.
 
He can drink deep six days from today, as the Chinese New Year celebrations begin in his home city, Shanghai, knowing that business school has given him much more than an impressive notch on his CV. 
 
And he knows that, after dropping a career path that saw him work inside leading Asian companies, he has no regrets. 
 
Because if Danny hadn't joined China Europe International Business School, the top MBA Ranking university based in his home city, he wouldn't have a clear "vision" of where he wants to be this time next year, in 2015, with an MBA degree and a sports start-up idea that is blooming as quickly as China's economy is growing. 
 
So - not quite as fast as in previous years. But with every bit of potential as a tech-career could provide. And more. 
 
"When I see my family over Chinese New Year," Danny says, "they will all ask me: why are you not married yet?" But his focus, for the moment at least, is on the sports biz in China - a relatively underdeveloped industry for what is the world's second biggest economy. Not marriage.
 
When Danny, a second-year CEIBS MBA, visited Texas in the USA on an MBA exchange with The Red McCombs School of Business, it was quite the culture shock. And not just because of the colloquial accents.
 
His start-up business, which manages the Shanghai Corporate Soccer League, is stuck in a rut: China has yet to embrace the huge business potential of the sports industry.
 
Danny's Texas-based MBA project at the time, with the food and beverage giant PepsiCo, was with the NFL and Mexico Soccer Men's National Team. According to Forbes, the former is worth around $9 billion. And AT Kearney, the leading management consultancy, predicts that the entire sports industry is worth between €350 billion and €450 billion worldwide.
 
Yet China is only taking a meager slice of the industry's pie. In 2008, The China Times reported that the sports industry accounts for just 0.52 per cent of the country's GDP - far below the +1 per cent norm in most Western countries.
 
The local daily newspaper described the sector as "an untapped gold mine with immense potential business opportunities".
 
Danny agrees. "We don't have this culture of watching sports games and playing sports from a very young age," he says. "So now we have to first make the sports industry survive; to start making a sustainable profit. We have to make people love it first."
 
His MBA project in the States was an eye-opener. "I was in the US for four months and I went to see football games, MBA games and college games. And I saw the roots in American culture," Danny says. "Sport plays a huge part of the culture in America, but its not the same story in China."
 
So how does a single MBA start a course to change attitudes towards the industry in the East? Start-up your own business, of course. Danny launched the Shanghai Corporate Soccer League (SCSL), a local tournament organized for businessman at some of the city's biggest companies. 
 
"In the first season I utilized the CEIBS alumni network," Danny says. "Many EMBAs highlighted people in their companies that I could approach, so it was easy to talk to them. That was definitely helpful."
 
Flash forward to 2014 and, a week away from welcoming in the New Year, the CEIBS MBA student has expanded the league into a viable business with the help of partners. 
 
They run the soccer league, but also a youth training program and a club management arm of the business. Danny may have entered the MBA program as an IT support specialist, but by the time he leaves he will be a full-fledged entrepreneur. 
 
Before starting at CEIBS, he felt he could do more than "sit behind a screen". An MBA was his way to escape into reality. Danny felt he didn't have to skills to tackle business problems, and chose CEIBS because he wanted to stay in China. 
 
"I applied to some schools in the US," he admits. "But now that I'm about to graduate I know that CEIBS was the right choice - because if you want to be a leader in China, you have to stay in the environment. I don't think there are as many opportunities [elsewhere] compared to here in China."
 
It seems better MBA Job prospects in the prosperous region were attractive. Although China's economy has just dropped down from 7.8 per cent to 7.7 per cent growth, it is still in significantly better shape than Europe and North America. 
 
"It definitely impacted my decision," Danny agrees. "Because of the strong economy, the [sports] market can continue to grow."
 
The culture has changed slightly as a result. "When I was a teenager, we used to look forward to buying clothes at the New Year," he continues. "But now, people look at doing more expensive things - like playing sports or going to concerts or art exhibitions."
 
Danny is set on changing experiences for MBA students too. He set up a soccer league at CEIBS, similar to the many MBA Clubs across the globe, for business students to get stuck into. He has always been interested in sports, playing since a young age, and the "MBA football league" was a success. 
 
It made him think outside the box. His vision now is to transform the sports industry as a whole in the country. A small idea, borne from MBAs kicking balls about around campus, is Danny's motivation for achieving real change in China. 
 
"It's a long-term goal, it's not clear yet. It's a vision," he insists. "It is my ambition to see it grow, but I have to figure out where it is going to be in five years' time."
 
Yet there are many obstacles in his path. The Football Association of the People's Republic of China holds most of the power when it comes to sporting reform, and they often reject new ideas that carry a degree of risk. It seems reform comes from top-to-bottom. Although this is changing slowly, Danny says. 
 
For the time being, he hopes to work with big brands in the sporting industry and gain experience. The soccer league will still be run on the side.
 
And for that, an MBA is surely a safe bet. "I want to work for sport companies like Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, and get some experience in the industry," he says. 
 
"But I still have the long-term goal of making this soccer league bigger.
 
"We are cultivating the sports culture for the Chinese people. And it will be a long process. But I think we'll get there eventually."

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