Everybody’s eyes were on the ball during the tense England v Germany Euro 2020 football match this week – mine included.
But almost every time I saw a sponsored brand on the digital billboards that run the circumference of the pitch at Wembley, there appeared to be a Chinese super-brand logo on display.
During the last tournament, held in 2016, there was just one Chinese sponsor – the TV maker HiSense.
This time around, HiSense has been joined on the billboards by TikTok, Vivo and Alipay.
There are no sign of any US equivalents – neither Facebook, Google, Amazon nor Apple for example, feature on the official “partners” list.
Tournament organiser Uefa told the BBC it had “no specific strategy” regarding Chinese collaborations.
“However, we do look to engage a global audience, as do the brands who join our commercial programme,” it added.
England midfielder Declan Rice with smartphone brand Vivo ad behind him.
TikTok, which claims its global platform is kept separate from its Chinese operation, has partnered with UEFA for this tournament only and has thrown a tonne of promotional weight behind it on its platform, including branded augmented reality effects, TikTok lives and hashtag challenges.
Uefa even launched its own official tournament account for the occasion, followed by 4.2 million people.
Alipay, a Chinese payment platform, has brought along a subsidiary, Antchain, a blockchain firm. Both are part of the tech giant Ant Group.
A blockchain is a kind of digital ledger, which is stored on lots of individual computers, making it harder to alter or fake the records. It’s most commonly used to keep track of virtual currency transactions but it can be used to store other information as well.
You can’t use Alipay without Chinese ID in all countries. And yet last month, Antchain announced a five-year sponsorship deal with UEFA – Alipay already had its own independent eight-year deal in place.
Alipay is now providing a trophy for the top scorer of the games, with all the scores recorded on Antchain.
Alipay Euro 2020 top scorer trophy
The official announcement from UEFA gushes that a hashtag symbol on the base of the trophy “underlines AntChain’s commitment to ensuring a permanent, incorruptible record of the top scorer’s achievements with blockchain technology”.
Which is marketing speak for, well, not a lot really. So what is in it for these brands?
ShuShu Chen, lecturer in sport policy and management at the University of Birmingham, says that HiSense did report a rise in sales after its sponsorship of the 2016 tournament.
However, it is perhaps also no coincidence that China’s President Xi Jinping is known to be a huge football fan, and with the tightening of both government scrutiny and regulation of the nation’s tech giants, it could be seen as a smart PR move to be visibly supportive of the beautiful game.
Senior advertising analyst Matt Bailey from the firm Omdia agrees that they are “feeling the pressure” in their home market.
“Europe is becoming an increasingly important market for Chinese companies,” he says, citing the “explosion” of TikTok in 2020.