Soccer teams throughout Europe this week will continue their journey towards an unprecedented sporting event.
Across the continent, men’s national sides will play the next rounds of qualification for Uefa Euro 2020. The second 24-team edition of the international game’s second-richest tournament will be played at 12 venues in 12 different countries, as a special pan-European version is held for its 60thanniversary. Meanwhile, the reach of its commercial platform will be underlined by the presence of a second Chinese company among six lead partners.
Last November, Alipay joined consumer appliances manufacturer Hisense among Uefa’s national team soccer sponsors. The mobile payments giant signed an eight-year agreement with the European soccer confederation, becoming a partner of all tournaments played between 2018 and 2026 in a deal valued at €200 million.
“What we are doing is using technology to drive financial inclusiveness around the world,” says Rita Liu (right), the Alipay director of sports marketing. “And we think that football is a sport that can be played by everyone and it’s also something that stands for inclusiveness. So we think we share the same vision with Uefa and with football as a sport.”
It was an announcement notable not just for its scale, but also because of Alipay’s limited European presence. In China, it dominates the QR code-based mobile payment space alongside WePay. Owned by the US$150 billion fintech group Ant Financial, an affiliate of billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba, Alipay’s primary services are used by 800 million Chinese consumers, while another 588 million have put aside small amounts of money through its Yu’e Bao microsavings platform.
That user base grows to over a billion once its nine partnership with other Asian digital wallet providers – like PayTM in India, Pay in South Korea, GCash in the Philippines and Dana in Indonesia – are factored in.
Over the summer, it announced plans to launch a QR-based network across ten European countries, working with Bluecode, ePassi, Momo Pocket, Pagaqui, Pivo, and Vipps. Nevertheless, its relative inactivity on the continent suggests it is looking at its Uefa partnership differently than other sponsors.
Who is this partnership aimed at?
Alipay’s Uefa partnership includes its share of conventional elements. At June’s inaugural Uefa Nations League Finals in Portugal, its branding was visible pitchside while it also sponsored the player of the match trophy. The design for that award was meant to resemble the image of a player striking a ball, and also of the first character in Alipay’s Chinese name – which means both ‘payment’ and ‘support’.
Those promotional activities are targeted as much at users in China as soccer fans in Europe.
“Even though it’s European football, it’s actually a very well-known global event,” Liu says. “It’s definitely also us leveraging this global sports platform to grow our global brand influence.”
But the partnership also caters to Chinese users in another way. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO),Chinese touristsmade 149.7 millionoverseastrips in 2018 andspent $277.3billion. Europe is the second most popular region for Chinese travellers.
Last year Nielsen produced research – funded in part by Alipay – that suggested the average Chinese tourist spent US$762 on shopping during each trip, and that 90 per cent of them would prefer to use their mobile payment service of choice if possible.
“Even though Europeans cannot use Alipay yet, we are actually enabling the merchants and partners here to accept Alipay,” Liu explains. “As you can see in the news, we are growing very fast in Europe. More and more merchants are accepting Alipay to attract more Chinese business.”
Through hospitality and VIP experiences, then, Alipay will be spending next summer driving awareness among those merchants and expanding the network of those accepting payments through its system.
How will the partnership change Uefa's digital operation?
Alipay has also been building technical elements into the partnership on Uefa’s behalf. Its mobile wallet is now the first to be accepted on Uefa.com, and was also in use at all venues during the Uefa Nations League Finals.
“So we are bringing digital experiences to the whole event,” Liu says. “That’s what we’re already doing. And in the future we’ll be connecting all these partners we have in Asia, these wallets and these users, to Uefa as well. Hopefully, next year you’ll see the users of all our wallets in south-east Asia or in Asia will be able to use their most familiar way to pay to interact with Asia.”
Alipay's payment system was on show at the Uefa Nations League Finals in June
Uefa is also selling tickets to Euro 2020 in China through a new Alipay portal, becoming the first sports partner to set up on the Mini Program system.
“Before, you could only buy a ticket on Uefa.com and I think they’re building it on their app, but they don’t have a native Chinese-language app or website yet in China,” Liu explains. Through the Mini Program, they don’t really need to do much to achieve that experience in China.”
Mini Program, Liu continues, is a project aimed at building Alipay out from its origins as a payment system to become a “lifestyle super-app”.
She adds: “Mini Program is basically an open platform within Alipay where developers and businesses can use the modules or portals to build their own mini-app within the Alipay app. The interaction users have within the mini-app is very similar to them using a native app of that business but for the business and developers, they don’t have to start something brand new and build a native app from scratch. They can easily use the modules behind our mini-programme system to start offering that to their customers.
“So it’s something brand new for the ecosystem in China and it has been very popular. It’s getting very popular among our partners and merchants and users. In January this year, we announced that the number of daily active users of mini-programmes had already reached 230 million. That’s a big chunk of Alipay’s users. And also, there are already 120,000 mini-programmes live on the Alipay platform.”
The expectation is that having a body like Uefa involved will encourage others to follow, giving users more reasons to stay within the Alipay ecosystem. “We’re seeing very strong interest in the market,” Liu says, “not just from sports organisations from all over the world, but from merchants and partners – they are also looking to build Alipay mini-programmes to reach Chinese customers better. So I think there will probably be more.”
How is Alipay preparing for a pan-European Euro 2020?
“Success for us next year would be that the players in our ecosystem are all happy, whether it’s our users, our merchants here, our partners at Uefa – they’re all happy,” says Liu. “That’s the simple way to put it.”
Preparing for 51 matches across 12 cities in 31 days will present a stiff logistical task to any of the key partners.
“Obviously, it’s the first time Uefa’s done this, to do it across, basically, Europe – from the very east to the very west,” Liu adds. “I think, of course, that it’s challenging, but I think it’s a great idea for Uefa to do this.”
Uefa has become the first sports partner of Alipay's Mini Program system to sell Euro 2020 tickets in China
Liu expects Alipay to focus its efforts on cities like London and Rome, where it has a high proportion of users and there is a high concentration of Chinese visitors, creating an incentive to expand merchant networks. Still, she believes the organisation is well set to deliver its activation plans across the continent.
“In Europe, Alipay does have quite a few offices,” she says. “Together with Alibaba we have offices in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. So we have people on the ground across Europe. Of course, we will rely on our agencies. So I don’t think we will have people set up specifically for this project there for a few months but we will mobilise our agencies and also the Alipay team on the ground to do it.”
At the Uefa Nations League Finals, on-the-ground experiences for fans included technology-based soccer games and installations that took fans through the process of using QR code payments. Similar physical and digital experiences are planned for next summer.
“It doesn’t have to be that Europeans can’t use Alipay so we can’t engage with European fans,” Liu says. “There are actually many other ways and we’re exploring that.”
What’s the future for Alipay as a company and a sponsor?
Despite its considerable growth in the payments sector, Liu is careful to position Alipay as a “a tech enabler” with a mission “to make financial services more inclusive to the masses, to individuals and small businesses”. It is working closely with banks, she says, as well as with investment funds on its wealth management services.
“We’re not trying to change banks,” she adds, “we’re not trying to replace banks, we’re working with them.”
The term of the Uefa partnership, along with the company’s role in the new European digital wallet network, will inevitably fuel speculation about a wider launch in the region for Alipay. Liu, however, is non-committal about the prospect.
“There’s no clear timeline for whether or when Alipay will come and really offer our services to Europeans or through partners,” she says. “But our concept is to always start with the users. So what we do needs to solve certain pain points. If people here are very happy using contactless or using other ways of payment, and it’s convenient for them, then there’s no point of changing that. We’re not using technology for the sake of technology. We want to use technology to make people’s lives easier.
“So what’s the pain point of a UK customer? We start from the customers. In China, it’s not because we are offering the QR code as something new from a card or other ways of payment. We made the payment more convenient than traditional payment options in China and, also, the other functions we offer in the app, like wealth management tools and being able to get merchants’ coupons inside the app – the lifestyle enabler concept behind it that made people’s lives easier – that’s why people use Alipay.
Alipay could be integrated into Alibaba's partnership with the IOC
“If we cannot solve a pain point, then we wouldn’t push the wallet to the users here. It doesn’t make sense.”
Whatever its corporate intentions, Liu believes Alipay has plenty it can bring to its role as a Uefa sponsor between now and 2026. Much as Alibaba is using its sponsorship of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to overhaul the digital operation of the Games, Liu sees potential in an integrated approach.
“We do believe there are many ways that tech can digitise, can improve or can optimise sports fans’ experience,” she says, pointing to Alipay’s research in areas like blockchain, AI and the Internet of Things. “This is something that we’re also exploring – how to use tech to digitise and to optimise sports.”
Alipay, much like Alibaba, sees sport and wellbeing as a “big growth area in China” and one that will create its share of possibilities, even if the company takes a steady approach to adding further partnerships.
“Lots of people are coming to introduce themselves and see if there is more of an opportunity for working together,” Liu says. “Currently, we’re very focused on Uefa because they’re a great partner and it’s a great deal. It’s new for us so we want to do it properly. There’s so much we can do with them.”