Industry experts have questioned Southamption’s new “record” shirt deal with Chinese brand LD Sports, which was officially announced on Monday as the “biggest sponsorship deal in the club’s history”.
But LD Sports is yet to launch, its product offering is still unknown, and few observers had heard of the company before it signed with Southampton.
In a club statement, Southampton described its new sponsor as “a brand-new sports content, marketing and entertainment platform,” adding that although it is not yet operational, it will “launch this summer for the Chinese market.”
The statement also linked to LD Sports’ English-language website, www.ldsports.uk, but the site is still under construction.
Its home page offers a partnership launch video and notice that reads: “Our website is in progress…” Visitors are also encouraged to follow LD Sports on social media, but the website provides no social media handles.
LD Sports’ Chinese-language website, http://ledong6666.com, was initially live during the partnership launch on Monday, but has been down since Tuesday this week, according to the South China Morning Post.
Sports industry observers are now questioning Southampton’s rationale for selling a key sponsorship asset to an unknown brand.
Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider, told SportBusiness Sponsorship: “I don’t think it’s a scam per se, but it’s a huge risk for the club to be taking – in effect gambling on an unknown company and announcing it as the biggest deal in their history.
“There may be more to this than has initially appeared, but who is to say that LD Sports – whose vague future product has a landing page and absolutely nothing else – will still be in existence three years from now, filling the club’s coffers?”
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford, Manchester, said on Twitter that the deal “carries hallmarks of Chinese state influence”, adding that “this no ordinary deal”.
The Southampton-based Southern Daily Echo described the deal as a “clear nod to Saints’ attempts to broaden their appeal in China under the ownership of Gao Jisheng.”
Gao is the founder of China’s Lander Sports agency, which bought an 80-per-cent stake in the club in 2017 for a reported fee of £200m.
The Daily Echo also confirmed that it has been informed that LD Sports is not linked to Gao or Lander Sports, but industry observers remain unconvinced.
Yesterday, the Premier League concluded an investigation into Chinese state influence at Southampton, after Gao sold shares in Lander Sports to the Chinese government.
The league found that the Chinese government had “not gained a significant stake” in Southampton, despite initial difficulties in obtaining information from the club.
Southampton was the first Premier League club to come under Chinese ownership.