Against the odds, North Korea begins race for sports sponsorship


In the last global outpost of hardline Communism, North Korea’s athletes have begun competing in an event they seem destined to lose under their current manager — the race for international sponsorship.

After being shut out for decades from the lucrative spin-offs of capitalist economics, officials in North Korea say dictator Kim Jong-Il is now urging sports chiefs to find major global brands to bankroll their national teams.

“We want to do what all the countries around the world are doing. We want to find sponsors,” the chief executive officer of North Korea’s Sports Marketing Group, Jon Chol-Ho, told an AFP journalist in Pyongyang.

The government set up the Sports Marketing Group in 2000 to find sponsors ahead of the Sydney Olympics but Jon said, after some initial success, global brands had shown very little interest.

“I have sent messages to many people around the world but there is no answer, no reply,” Jon said.

North Korea’s initial ventures began well when they secured Italian sports apparel company FILA to sponsor their national teams.

But when FILA was sold to a US company in 2003, Jon said the days of the partnership were numbered and the sports firm did not renew the contract when it expired last year.

Other brands, such as Adidas, Mizuno and Asics, have taken a minor interest and helped teams for the Athens Olympics and other major events, but Jon said the deals were generally only for uniforms and equipment, not big cash.

“For Athens, we did that very much the hard way… this is not so good,” he said. “I want to make one big contract with one big company. The problem is just to find one company.”

Jon said Kim, who has opened up tiny sections of North Korea’s stagnant economy over recent years despite his virulent anti-Western ideologies, was behind the push for international sports sponsors.

“It is very important for people to know this. Our great General Kim Jong-Il is very interested in developing our sports,” he said to emphasise that foreign companies would be welcomed onto North Korea’s sporting fields.

“He is very interested to give us everything we need. That’s why I’m confident if a company asks if anything is possible, I can answer yes, as long as it is not against any law.”

However two sports marketing executives with extensive experience in North Asia said that simply having Kim’s blessing was not nearly enough to entice major brands into investing in such a poor nation with a closed economy.

“There are virtually no commercial activities in North Korea so it means there’s almost no chance for a company to generate income there through sponsorship,” a senior executive with a global sports marketing firm in South Korea told AFP by phone from Seoul.

“If there’s no profit for them in that domestic market, companies will continue to stay away.”

Richard Avory, who was one of the pioneers of sports marketing in China and a former senior executive with global industry giant IMG, agreed that one of the biggest obstacles for North Korea was that almost no-one there could buy the goods of potential sponsors.

“The basic problem lies with the fact they don’t have much of a market… there is no consumer demand,” Avory, who is now president of China Sports and Entertainment Group, said by telephone from Beijing.

However Avory said there was some hope for North Korea simply because they have some world class sports teams and athletes.

The men’s football team is one of eight left in Asia still in the race for next year’s World Cup, although they have lost their first three matches in the final qualifying round and their odds of getting through are slim.

Their female counterparts are also one of the best teams in Asia and four North Koreans won silver medals at the Athens Olympics, including Hyang Mi-Kim in the women’s table tennis and featherweight boxer Kim Song-Guk.

“Being good at sports is very important… obviously any firm that sponsors a team wants that team to be good,” Avory said, adding companies would be willing to back North Korean athletes if they had a stronger international presence.

“If they (the men’s football team) could qualify for the World Cup, that would be a huge boost to them from the viewpoint of companies wanting to be involved.”

The Seoul-based marketing chief, who did not want to be named, said another potential sponsorship avenue was through South Korean firms looking to boost their domestic image by helping out their “brothers” in the north.

“Some companies already supply some products from a humanitarian standpoint… that may create good PR in South Korea and help their sales domestically,” he said.

The Seoul executive said North Korea’s reputation in the West as an “axis of evil” and an “outpost of tyranny”, as US leaders have described the nation, has played only a minor role in keeping international sponsors away.

“It’s more an economic issue. It could create some bad PR (for Western firms) but politics and the business of sponsorship are generally different issues.”


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