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Will the Chinese Super League bubble burst?

The Chinese Super League is awash with money and signing high-priced players from across the globe, but is it ultimately sustainable?

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The Chinese Super League has been on the lips of soccer fans since Guangzhou Evergrande dropped a whopping €42 million on Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez on February 3. It was further brought to the forefront of the soccer conscious when Alex Teixeira transferred to Jiangsu Suning from Shakhtar Donetsk for a record €50 million on February 5, and perhaps even more to the forefront of the American soccer conscious when Seattle Sounders striker Obafemi Martins was linked to Shanghai Shenhua.

If you want a primer on the Chinese Super League, Alicia Rodriguez with The Goat Parade put together a great one that's well worth a read.

There are some issues with the Chinese Super League that should give you pause before picking a team to root for and staying up until ungodly hours of the morning to watch matches. The CSL has three significant issues that raise red flags for me as to why this league will need significant changes to its business model if it is to stay in the soccer conscious. The first, which was outlined in the article in The Goat Parade, is the lack of quality domestic players. China just doesn't produce soccer talent that would see those players exported into top leagues. In fact according to the Wikipedia page, there are no players on the Chinese National Team that play outside of the Chinese Super League. And while there are no reliable international club league rankings, having a 93rd ranked national team and no one playing anywhere but domestically doesn't bode well for Chinese soccer.

The second issue is that spending money on bringing in players like Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira is unsustainable - especially when you look at the source of the money. Out of the 16 teams in the Chinese Super League, 10 of them are owned outright or have majority stakeholders in the real estate sector. This is especially problematic - nothing is less certain than the real estate market. China has entire cities that have been built on speculation that people will eventually move into them. While people will most likely move into them eventually, these are sitting vacant for the time being which means that the developers have to keep building in order to make money. While cities are even reclaiming land from the sea to build new projects, this does not seem like a sustainable model - especially when you're dumping part of your profits into luring soccer players to play in your league. At some point the bubble will burst like it did in the United States in the late 2000s, and these players will follow the money elsewhere.

This sort of thing has happened before - in the early 2010s, the Russian Premier League spent huge amounts of money to bring in players like Samuel Eto'o, Hulk, Axel Witsel, and Willian. The big clubs were awash in oil and gas money, however with the price of oil and gas plummeting in the past three years (not to mention the unrest in Crimea and the international sanctions against Russia as a result), the money has dried up. Out of those four players, only Witsel and Hulk remain - and perhaps more damning is that no big transfers into the RPL have occurred since Willian signed in 2013 (he played 11 games for Anzhi Makhachkala before transferring to Chelsea later in the year).

Something that plagued the Russian Premier League and could be an issue with the Chinese Super League is the lack of an international television audience. It's no secret that the real money in soccer is made through television deals, however the Russian Premier League has had two consecutive domestic three-year deals for $120 million each. The only external outlet that shows RPL matches is NGSN - a streaming service that's been around for less than a year. The Chinese Super League has just sold their television rights for the next five seasons to Ti'ao Dongli for a jaw-dropping ¥8 billion CNY ($1.25 billion USD). Ti'ao Dongli is owned by China Media Company, which is "a state-backed investment firm" according to Forbes. While that kind of money is not insignificant, one has to wonder if the Chinese economy goes into recession, will this money be available in 2020? The CSL is currently unavailable to watch outside of China, and while a native audience of over 1.3 billion people is more than enough to justify the price tag, most leagues that can sell their rights internationally are happy to do so.

According the The Telegraph, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has "focused on developing the game, setting out a mandate of building from grassroots level through to hosting and, even winning, the World Cup." This is a very lofty goal, and one that conventional wisdom says requires a strong domestic league to make happen. General Secretary Xi seems ready to make this a reality and has dedicated resources to this end, however since Xi is both General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China (a largely ceremonial post), he is limited to two five-year terms in office. Under the current laws in China, this means that the latest he will be in office is 2022 - provided he keeps his position in 2017. It's entirely possible that this could change. Mao Zedong was Chairman of the Communist Party for 33 years, however Mao was a foundational figure for China, but there do not appear to be any leaders in the country at present who could bypass term limits mandated by the party. It remains to be seen if General Secretary Xi will get that sort of veneration during his term. If the next General Secretary doesn't share this vision, then the days of marquee players going to China could be numbered.

China is certainly an interesting study with regards to its growth. The resources are there, and the will to grow the league seems to be there, but for how long? And how long can the money continue to flow - especially if the Chinese economy collapses? It remains to be seen if a domestic league can flourish and grow the game in a bubble.