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Village Super League looks to net profits

China Daily | July 19, 2023


Thousands of fans watch a Village Super League soccer match in Rongjiang county. Yang Wenbin / Xinhua

Rongjiang was an obscure county in Guizhou province until May when it became famous for staging the Village Super League, or cunchao, a grassroots soccer tournament.

The county in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture, which has a population of 385,000, has welcomed more than 1 million tourists since the ongoing rural soccer tournament began on May 13.

"It has become a phenomenon," said Lin Tao, deputy director of the tourism bureau of Rongjiang.

"Every week, more than 40,000 spectators flock to the stadium for the 'Super Saturday' games. As of the end of June, the tournament has had more than 20 billion views on the internet," he said.

Over the three-day Dragon Boat Festival holiday alone, the county received 350,000 tourists and tourism income reached 444 million yuan ($62 million), about five times the amount for the same period last year.

Thanks to the festive atmosphere, uncomplicated and exciting style of play, and some spectacular goals, the event has gained a widespread following.

Ex-England soccer star Michael Owen recorded a video message expressing his support for the competition, while former Asian Footballer of the Year, retired China international Fan Zhiyi, led a team to interact with the local players. Media, both in China and overseas, have been fascinated by the event.

"The locals are really moved and feel proud about the attention and influx of visitors to Rongjiang," said Yang Yajiang, one of the initiators of the tournament.

"Many villagers offer to help, distributing free bottled water and snacks. People here are united as one family."

Yang, 49, is the headmaster of a local primary school, but since the tournament started he has taken on several other roles. He is director of performances, coordinator of various activities and also plays for his village team.

"I'm really busy, but I don't feel tired," Yang said, adding that the passion of the local people and the praise of netizens across the country has invigorated him. He said, he felt, "as if I were 20 years younger."

Organized by the county's soccer association, the tournament has a group stage followed by a knockout format, with 20 teams competing. The players are from all walks of life and include farmers, vendors, small business owners, construction workers and excavator drivers.

Divided into two groups, the teams compete on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with the final scheduled for July 29.

Villagers organize the teams, match schedules, rules, programs and prizes. The local government provides the venues, electricity, communications, security and sanitation services.

"It is a pure soccer competition with no financial interests involved," said Yang. "We are playing not for the prize but the honor of our villages."

Rich ethnic culture

What sets the Village Super League apart from other sports events are the vibrant displays of ethnic cultures and traditions at the tournament.

As players of both teams walk on the field for a game, they are accompanied by their cheer squads dressed in traditional ethnic costumes and carrying local specialties such as glutinous rice, cured fish and other distinctive products.

The halftime break features folk songs and dance performances and ethnic costumes are also on display. Spectators even join the dancers on the field, creating a festive atmosphere of celebration and unity.

Di Wenke, a 35-year-old wheelchair performer from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, was captivated by the lively atmosphere after watching short videos of the tournament on social media.

Despite the challenges of traveling in a wheelchair, he embarked on a 2,200-kilometer journey to Rongjiang, which included a flight and a high-speed train ride.

"Our society is very inclusive now. No matter where I go, there is always someone who offers to help me," said Di, who became paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury in 2016.

"At the crowded stadium, some spectators offered to help me find a good spot. A guy even offered to give me one of the best spots, which he had secured by waiting for hours under the scorching sun," he said.

Equipped with his mobile phone to record exciting moments and joining in with the cheerleaders' chants, Di quickly immersed himself in the vibrant atmosphere.

During the halftime performances, he showcased Mongolian dance moves in his wheelchair and interacted with Miao and Dong women from the cheer squads.

"People from different ethnic groups shared their dance and cuisine. I felt really happy to be with them and I deeply understood the unity of different ethnic groups at that time," said Di, who brought beef jerky from his hometown to share with local people. "The trip was worth it," he added.

Rongjiang is home to 15 ethnic groups that make up about 83 percent of the county's population.

The local government has tried to take economic advantage of the county's rich ethnic culture, and since 2021 has planned five branding activities. "But none of them achieved the desired result. Finally, we made it this time with cunchao," said Xu Bo, head of Rongjiang county.

"Practice has shown us that sports events and intangible cultural heritage must be cleverly combined," he said.

"Cunchao, which combines local soccer traditions with diverse ethnic cultures, is the right approach we had been looking for to suit the local comparative advantage," Xu said.

Sporting tradition

In recent years, the county has focused on gymnastics, soccer, rock climbing and other sports and has developed outstanding national and provincial-level sporting talent.

The county has a rich soccer history and a solid foundation, with 14 soccer fields, 35 registered teams, and thousands of soccer players.

"In Rongjiang, there are nearly 50,000 soccer enthusiasts. Every village has at least one soccer team," Xu said.

Rural soccer matches have taken place regularly since the 1990s.

When there was a lack of facilities, soccer players used barren land as a field and wooden stakes for the posts. The boundaries were marked out with lime powder.

Nowadays, there are 14 regulation soccer fields that are provided for teams to use free of charge.

Although the players may not be as skillful as professionals, fans appreciate their dedication and enthusiasm. However, there are bursts of exquisite passing and shooting to thrill the crowds.

During a match in May, Wu Chuguo, a decoration worker from Liubaitang village, scored a spectacular 40-meter goal that ignited the crowd.

Wu said he was influenced by elders in his village and fell in love with the sport. He said the village team was formed 10 years ago from a diverse group. When they can't gather enough players together they play futsal, a soccer-based game played on a smaller hard court.

Yang Bing, captain of the Kouzhai village team, said there is a consensus among villagers that, "those who have money contribute financially, and those who have strength contribute physically".

A 94-year-old grandmother insisted on donating 50 yuan to buy water for the players, stating that refusing to let her do so would mean excluding her from making a contribution to the team. "The entire village supports the team's efforts, resulting in considerable financial assistance of about 40,000 yuan," Yang said.

Yang is a bank director in Tianzhu county, Qiandongnan prefecture. When the tournament is on he drives to Rongjiang every Friday after work.

When he is not playing, he works as a commentator. Thanks to his humorous commentary style and familiarity with the players and local culture, as a member of the Dong ethnic group, Yang is popular both online and in person.

He is also the village's youth coach. Since 2017, Yang and several other villagers have taught children how to play soccer during winter and summer holidays and provided them with free training equipment.

Last summer, the Village Basketball Association competition, dubbed "Village BA", in Qiandongnan's Taijiang county also boomed in popularity due to its lively atmosphere and physical style of play.

The two tournaments are similar in many ways.

Their players come from various ethnic groups, such as the Miao, Dong, Sui, Han and Yao. Both events are organized by grassroots people and showcase and promote local ethnic cultures, which contribute to the economic development of the region.

This year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, in conjunction with the General Administration of Sport, issued a notice to hold the national beautiful countryside basketball tournament (Village BA). The status upgrade reflects the growing popularity of grassroots sports events.

Economic boost

The Village Super League, which has become a magnet for tourists across China, has driven local economic development in tourism, catering, accommodation, the cultural and creative sector, and agricultural products.

"This is a soccer carnival deeply rooted in the soil!" Han Qiaosheng, a famous TV commentator, said on June 3 during on-site commentary of a match, which attracted nearly 50,000 spectators, some of whom traveled over 1,000 kilometers to witness the excitement.

Taijiang and Rongjiang are located in remote mountain areas and both previously suffered from a lack of roads and limited flow of information.

Today, improved transportation infrastructure enables visitors easy access from the provincial capital Guiyang as well as Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The easy access has been dubbed a "one-hour economic circle".

The counties are also within a "four-hour economic circle" of cities in the Pearl River Delta, such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province.

The convenient transportation network means tens of thousands of visitors can travel to Rongjiang in a short time.

The matches are exciting, with enthusiastic villagers and visitors joining together to create an electric atmosphere. Outside the stadium, hundreds of stalls operate until late at night, offering local cuisine to visitors.

"I hope that more and more tourists will come to Rongjiang to watch the matches, enjoy the folk customs and local cuisine, and have fun," said Xiong Zhuqing, a melon grower who is also a cheer leader.

As Xiong supports her team, her voice becomes hoarse and the basin she's been banging on becomes peppered with several big dents. "But I feel happy," said Xiong, adding the economic benefits of the event are substantial.

She says she has sold over 10,000 kilograms of watermelons since the start of the tournament. "Things that used to take a few days to sell are now being sold in a day. My watermelons have long sold out. Now I sell those grown by other villagers," she said.

A video clip of Xiong wearing a purple costume while selling watermelons to fans at the stadium went viral. She was called "Rongjiang watermelon sister" by netizens. Many fans seek her out to buy watermelons to take home.

The county has seen a surge in tourist numbers.

In May alone, it recorded more than 1 million visits, a 39.7 percent year-on-year increase. Tourism revenue reached 1.24 billion yuan, a 52.08 percent year-on-year increase, according to the local government.

Rongjiang, which was one of the last counties in China to lift itself out of poverty, is now a key focus for rural vitalization. It leveraged the tournament to boost sales of its agricultural products and develop its tourism and service sectors.

As of June 27, a total of 654 new businesses were established including 91 in the catering sector, 188 in retail, and 195 in agriculture and food processing, the local government said.

To take full advantage of the tournament's success, Rongjiang has established a tourism development company named after the Village Super League, which is fully owned by a local state enterprise.

The enterprise has applied for the registration of multiple trademarks related to "Village Super" and "cunchao".

Guizhou's administration for market regulation said it has issued a work plan for the cultivation of the brand and intellectual property right protection of "Village BA" and "Village Super".

By combining tourism with sports, Rongjiang has found an innovative and meaningful way to promote rural vitalization and stimulate rural economic growth.

"Here, I can see the happy emergence of modern Chinese villages," several netizens have commented.