Guochuan Lai finally saw the Baggies win last month, and he looked like he enjoyed it.
Photos of Albion’s owner beaming from ear to ear outside the ground after the 3-1 win over Arsenal and giving fans the thumbs up on the M40 down to London suggest he had a good time.
When the 42-year-old businessman bought Jeremy Peace’s 88 per cent majority stake last summer, there were question marks surrounding his motives – as there always is when a relatively unknown person buys a football team.
The Chinese government may have been encouraging its businessmen to get involved in the game because it wants to be a ‘football superpower’ by 2050, but why would a Shanghai entrepreneur want to spend around £175million on a team from the West Midlands?
Even if Lai did somehow remember Albion’s ground-breaking tour to China in 1978, which took place when he was a toddler, it’s unlikely a man worth hundreds of millions of pounds enters any venture for solely sentimental reasons.
At the time, the club admitted there was a commercially-beneficial aspect to his interest, and that Lai was hoping to use Albion’s expertise for his own gain, but the details surrounding that remained hazy. Now though, we have a better idea.
Lai is hoping to help build major football academies in China, and he will try to win these lucrative contracts because he can promise expert training from a Premier League club.
Albion are well-placed to do this. Not only is their category one academy one of the most highly-regarded in the country, they already have the ‘Pass it Forward’ initiative set up by former commercial director Adrian Wright that delivers elite football coaching to thousands of schoolchildren in India.
This sort of project is very much within Lai’s wheelhouse. He made his millions with Palm, a company that specialise in developing eco-towns, but now he’s expanding into his government’s next big project, football.
In a recent interview, chairman John Williams said: “You can see what’s happening with football in China, at all levels, from the Super League down to the birth of young player and academy strategies. I think it’s a very good place for Lai to be. He’s very much into the eco-town projects which are all about outdoors, health, and fitness. It fits on a number of levels.”
This begs the question, what are Albion getting out of these potential academy deals? Well, just like their efforts in India, they will have access to thousands of young footballers with an opportunity to cherry-pick the best talent, but we are many years away from those players being good enough for the Premier League. The main benefit is commercial.
Albion’s shirt sponsors for this season are UK-K8.com, a Chinese online casino, and last month they announced IGOFX – an Asian currency trader – as another sponsor.
Thanks to Peace, the club is operating from a sound financial platform, and now it will be making even more money from these commercial deals in the Far East.
Supporters will welcome this globalisation, but on one proviso. With broadcast money sky-rocketing at the same time, they will expect a significant amount to be reimbursed into the playing squad too, starting this summer.Subscribe to our Newsletter