China’s national women’s soccer team just got a big boost from online payments app Alipay.
The Alibaba (BABA)-affiliated company is taking the lead on a 1 billion yuan ($145 million) commitment to support Chinese women’s soccer over the next decade. The foundations of Alibaba (BABA) co-founder Jack Ma and executive vice chairman Joe Tsai are also taking part in the pledge.
It is the biggest investment in women’s soccer in China ever, according to Alipay.
Alipay wants to bring “technology, funds and resources to better support the development of women’s soccer in China,” a spokesman for the company said on Monday. He also noted that it is not a sponsorship, so it comes with “no commercial strings attached.”
The money will be used to support several initiatives including the “performance improvement of the China Women’s National Football Team,” and the development of young players, Alipay said in a statement on Friday.
This “is a smart business move that also can have positive social benefits,” said Duncan Clark, author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.”
“Men’s soccer in China has been rife with mismanagement, corruption, and it’s hard to avoid that legacy. Women’s soccer offers the promise of something better,” he said.
The injection of cash comes as the US Women’s National Team, which clinched a fourth victory on Sunday at the World Cup, pushes back against a pay disparity between the women’s and men’s game. The team has sued for equal pay at home and called for more investment in the sport globally.
The prize for the 2018 men’s World Cup stood at $400 million, while female players will receive $30 million this year. Gianni Infantino, president of global soccer’s governing body FIFA, said the organization will double it for the next women’s World Cup in 2023. But USWNT star Megan Rapinoe says that isn’t enough.
Rapinoe, who scored one of two goals in the final, slammed FIFA during a news conference over the weekend, saying it does not respect female athletes as much as their male counterparts.
“It certainly is not fair,” she said. “We should double it now and use that number to double it or quadruple it for the next time.”
China, meanwhile, has been trying to build up its prowess in the sport. The Chinese government in 2016 unveiled a plan to transform the country into a “soccer powerhouse” by 2050, investing in thousands of training programs and football pitches aimed at both the men’s and women’s game.
The China women’s national team was once a force to be reckoned with, making it to the 1999 World Cup final where it lost to the United States. But it has slipped down to 16th in the global rankings, and got knocked out before the quarterfinals of this year’s tournament.
Alipay hopes to change that. The company wants to be the “strongest advocate” for China women’s soccer, CEO Eric Jing said in a statement Friday.
Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based journalist who has covered Chinese sports for more than a decade, said the investment from Alipay is a big number and good to see, “but when it’s spread over 10 years, it suddenly becomes less spectacular.”
It will take at least a generation to build a globally competitive soccer team, Dreyer said. “China has turbocharged everything from its economy to its industries … but you can’t speed up the development of people.”
The pledge to women’s soccer is not Alipay’s first investment into the sport, nor its biggest. The company in November struck a €200 million ($225 million) sponsorship deal with European football body UEFA to be its official global payment partner.
Alibaba, whose affiliate Ant Financial owns Alipay, has a longer history with soccer. The Chinese tech giant bankrolls football club Guangzhou Evergrande, which won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015, and became the first Chinese club to win a place in the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013.