Last Updated April 2019
The Chinese Super League (CSL) is at the top of the food chain in Chinese sport, boasting a multi-billion yuan TV contract, 16 teams with an average attendance of around 25,000 per match and growing international recognition.
It is, however, weird.
The ownership of the teams can be murky - tweet us if you know who actually owns Shanghai Shenhua - but there’s no question about who’s in charge. It’s a governmental agency, the General Administration of Sport, which wields authority through the Chinese Football Association (CFA). And their priority isn’t club football. The Chinese national team is their sine qua non. The decisions they make, often formulated by people with no background in football, are designed to advantage the national team with virtually no thought given to how they affect the clubs.
So the clubs and their fans grit their teeth as the CFA dictates how many foreigners can play (right now it’s three at a time), or how many kids (every team must start at least one U23), or how much you can pay your players (the CSL has a soft salary cap), not minding much whether they change the rules on the cusp of the season or even during the season. The CFA does stuff every week that would make Gianni Infantino’s head explode if he knew.
The league is a lot of fun to watch anyway. There is quite a bit of talent on display: Hulk and Oscar at Shanghai SIPG, Paulinho at Guangzhou Evergrande, Augusto and Jonathan Viera at Beijing Guo’an, to name the most obvious examples. Chinese players, too: SIPG’s Yan Junling is a world-class keeper, Dong Xuesheng at Hebei CFFC can put the ball in the net and Huang Zichang is a promising midfielder for Jiangsu Suning.
Shanghai has two teams, Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua. Pick your poison.
SIPG is the defending champion and plays the most creative football in Asia. They’ve also booked a spot four years running in the Asian Champion’s League, where they match up with the best of Japan, South Korea and Australia. Unfortunately, they play at Shanghai Stadium, a badly designed track stadium.
Shenhua, mired in organizational disorder, finishes almost every season wallowing mid-table after making personnel decisions that can charitably be described as mysterious. But they play at Hongkou Stadium, the sole football-only perch in a league filled with monstrously giant, public works white elephants.
Shanghai Stadium is conveniently located on Lines 1 (Shanghai Indoor Stadium), 4 (Shanghai Stadium) and 11 (Shanghai Swimming Center). Hongkou Stadium is on Line 8 (Hongkou Stadium).
See here for help on how to buy tickets. Damai and More Tickets are also helpful. SIPG’s website is here and Shenhua can be found here. SIPG’s page has badly translated English content.
The match-day experience is lovely. The fans are into it, singing and cheering, and quite knowledgeable. But don’t expect much in the way of amenities. There’s no beer, not much food, and no spiffy scoreboards with live action or even replays of goals. Escalators are rare if you’re in the upper reaches of the stadium and forget about the whole thing if you’re disabled.
Ticket prices run from 50-200rmb, although it is possible to pay more. Beware of ticket scalpers outside the stadiums. They often sell counterfeit tickets which look real until a ticket taker shines his UV light on them.
Besides the CSL
There are other professional football options, none of them good. The Chinese national team, the subject of much derision and angst among the locals, hides away in second and third tier cities for almost all of their matches. Other national teams occasionally swing through China for the payday, but only for friendlies. (Brazil and Argentina, with Messi and Neymar in tow, were at the Bird’s Nest a couple of years ago.)
China League One, the pro tier just below the CSL, has a team in Shanghai, but it’s in Jinshan, so far flung it’s past even the reach of the Shanghai subway system. Hangzhou Greentown, relegated from the CSL a couple of years ago and rebuilding with some interesting young talent, is also in League One and might be worth checking in on if you’re already taking your SO to Xihu.
The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) is a distant second to the CSL in terms of fan popularity in China. It plays in smaller, unglamorous arenas, and doesn’t rise to the talent level of, say, a mid-major conference in the U.S.’s NCAA.
Each of the twenty teams in the CBA is allowed two foreign players, subject to strict usage rules: teams can only use them for a total of six quarters (out of a possible eight) per game.
Not all the foreigners can make the adjustment to China. This CBA is the league in which Tracy McGrady shit himself, literally and figuratively, but it’s also the league with perhaps the unlikeliest feel-good story in the history of basketball, Stephon Marbury. The NBA is a league notably tolerant of personal eccentricity (if you can sink a three or know how to move the rock), but Marbury, despite making All-Star teams, talked himself into unemployment. He arrived in China nine years ago as a punchline and left in 2018 as a national icon and the greatest player in CBA history.
The local entry in the CBA is the Shanghai Sharks, who were saved from bankruptcy in 2009 by Chinese and NBA legend Yao Ming, the second most famous person in China. Yao is, it turns out, a much better basketball player than administrator. The Sharks won their sole championship in 2002 (with Yao as their center), but have spent most of their existence mired in mediocrity.
Their top player is Jimmer Fredette, a onetime 10th pick in the first round of the NBA draft. Fredette washed out with the NBA’s Kings, Bulls, Pelicans and Knicks, averaging about six points a game. He came to Shanghai in 2016 and he’s been putting up about 37 a night here. Eat your heart out, James Harden.
Fredette is currently off in the Valley of the Sun getting a late-season look-see from the godawful Phoenix Suns, where his scoring average has dropped to four points a game, but there's every reason to think that the Sharks are going to leave a light on for him.
The top teams in the CBA are the Guangdong Southern Tigers and the Liaoning Flying Leopards. They’re both worth a look when they’re in Shanghai.
The Sharks play in the Pudong Yuanshen Gym, close to the Yuanshen Stadium stop on Line 6. Their website can be found here.
Other Hoops Options
Every fall, the NBA brings a couple of teams to Mercedes-Benz Arena for an exercise in existential ennui, i.e., the NBA pre-season. At regular-season prices. Not recommended.
More palatably, every year in early November, the Pac-12, one of the top college basketball conferences in the U.S., schedules a game at the Baoshan Sports Center, close to the Baoyang Lu stop in the far northern reaches of Line 3. Last year, the University of California got manhandled by Yale, 76-59.
This is probably the biggest foreign sports event of the year in China.
There are only 21 Formula One races around the globe every year. They all matter - a lot - and every top team and driver shows up for all of them. Shanghai International Circuit has hosted a Grand Prix since 2004, with some memorable results. Lewis Hamilton has won it five times, Daniel Ricciardo won it in 2018 and Michael Schumacher holds the track lap record.
Unlike North America, which loves its oval tracks - three hours of left turns - Formula One tracks are idiosyncratic. The Shanghai raceway is shaped like the Chinese character for “shang” (上) in “Shanghai.”
The track is located way out in Jiading, northwest of central Shanghai, but it’s got its own subway stop, Shanghai Circuit on Line 11. (Note bene: Line 11 splits in two just before Shanghai Circuit, so be sure and take a Huaqiao train rather than one to North Jiading.)
The place is huge, but seated tickets in the main grandstand are pricey. Seats on the back straight are cheaper. Seats higher in the grandstand offer what some think is one of the best views in all of Formula One.
Your single ticket is good for the whole weekend: practice sessions Friday, April 12 starting at 10am and Saturday, April 13 at 11am, as well as the race itself at 2pm on Sunday, April 14. Food and beer (no other alcohol) are available inside the security area, with much more outside.
The race’s website is here, but tickets are sold out on SmartTicket and all online vendors. Maybe skip it for 2019 and watch it live in a bar instead.
There’s also some add-on nightlife. Every year, the two-week run-up to the Grand Prix turns The Bund into booze-drenched free-for-all that functions as a massive drain on the world’s trust funds.
The track also hosts a Twenty-Four-Hours-of-LeMans-style race every fall, the Six Hours of Shanghai. It’s right after the Six Hours of Fuji on your calendar. Or, to say it another way, in mid-November.
Information can be found here.
The week before the Six Hours of Shanghai, you can see the Four Hours of Shanghai. Details are here.
If Formula 1 is simply too dé classé, there’s always Shanghai’s stop on the Longines Global Champion’s Tour. Horses. Jumping. Maybe Bruce Springsteen’s daughter will be there. Hongshan Lu, near Xueye Lu, China Art Museum stop on Line 8. Tickets are on SmartTicket.
When it comes to table tennis, there’s China and then, lagging far in the distance, there’s everybody else. At the Brazil Olympics in 2016, China won all the golds and most of the silvers. (Germany copped a silver by using a naturalized Chinese player.)
Chinese men have won the Asian Cup 30 times in the 35 years it’s been held, Chinese women 27 times. If you turn on CCTV-5 much, you probably already know that China has prime-time, national table tennis broadcasts.
And you know that these guys are athletes, supernatural hand-eye coordination crossed with a mathematician’s sense of angles and aerodynamics.
Naturally, the best pro league in the world is here. It’s the Chinese Table Tennis Super League, with 10 teams and a season that runs from October to February. The league uses a round-robin format, every team playing every other team home and away. The top four teams qualify for the playoffs that choose a champion.
The match format is a modified Davis Cup thing — four singles and one doubles match. Three different players must play in the four singles matches , so one guy goes twice, and that guy is ineligible for the doubles.
Shanghai has a men’s team in the league, Shanghai Zhongxing, and they’re good enough to have made the finals this year. They play at Hongkou Indoor Stadium in Luxun Park, near the Hongkou Stadium subway stop on Line 8.
Tickets are available in-season through Damai or ChinaTicket. The league’s website is here (Chinese only).
Big time matches outside the CTTSL are sometimes held at Shanghai Indoor Stadium (which has also hosted the Rolling Stones) and Qizhong Forest Sports City Tennis Arena (which has also hosted the rolling forehand of Rafael Nadal.)
The Diamond League, the pro track-and-field circuit, makes an annual stop in China every May at Shanghai Stadium. It’s one of only 14 events on the DL calendar, so it has no trouble attracting a world class field.
In fact, in 2018, the meet had eight world-best performances:
On the men’s side: Timothy Cheruiyot (Kenya) in the 1500m, Birhanu Balew (Bahrain) 5,000m, Omar McLeod (Jamaica) 110m hurdles, Luvo Manyonga (South Africa) long jump.
For the women, it was Beatrice Chepkoech (Kenya) 3000m steeplechase, Mariya Lasitskene (Russia) high jump, Caterine Ibarguen (Colombia) triple jump, and the crowd favorite, two-time Olympic medalist and Hebei native Gong Lijao, in the shot put.
Shanghai Stadium has a gently raked lower bowl and the upper reaches of the stadium are quite far away from the field. It’s worth buying in advance to get tickets closer to the track.
Changes are coming to the Diamond League in 2020, according to Sebastian Coe, the former distance runner who now heads the league. There will be no long distance races, and a cut in both the number of meets and the number of events at each meet. 2019 may be your last chance besides the Olympics to see a traditional, high level track meet in China or anywhere else.
For more information, click here.
Around the world, the craze for marathons has abated a bit, but not so much in China, where it’s estimated that there are around 1,000 marathons or half-marathons conducted every year.
Shanghai’s most important contribution to this vale of pain and tears is in November, the Shanghai Marathon, which begins on The Bund, obliterates traffic all over the city (but especially along the Huangpu River) and finishes near Shanghai Stadium. Seyefu Tura, from distance-running powerhouse Ethiopia, won the men’s race in 2018 in just over 2:09. Countrywoman Yebrgual Melese won the women’s side in just over 2:20.
For more information and tickets, click here.
On the surface, this is a top-class hard court tournament. The Big Four - Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray - have won it nine years in a row. It’s a 1,000 point tournament, the level just below the Grand Slams, the only such event on the Association of Touring Professionals (ATP) tour outside Europe and North America.
The problem is the timing. It’s held at the beginning of October, after the four Grand Slam tournaments and long after the cake has been baked for the season rankings. Players exhausted by a year-long, globetrotting slog that began in January have to decide whether to fly out to Asia for one more shot at the points and money you can harvest here. It’s no surprise that a lot of them don’t. As a result, the fields at the Rolex Masters are shallow and there have been accusations of tanking in the early rounds.
The event’s home, Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena, is a good news/bad news kind of thing. The good: it’s an excellent place to watch tennis, clean and modern with good sightlines from just about every seat. The bad: it’s in the middle of nowhere in Minhang District. Matches that run late are going to mean trouble getting home if you’re not in a car. The closest subway station is Beiqiao on Line 5 — six kilometers away.
Still, if you’re a tennis fan, it’s your only option for live, professional tennis in Shanghai. This is the event's website, and tickets are available on SmartTicket.
Women’s tennis gives Shanghai a pass, although two of the most important women’s tournaments of the year are in the People’s Republic. The China Open in Beijing is at the end of September. The Women’s Tennis Association describes it as “mandatory” for the top players. The WTA Finals are in Shenzhen at the end of October. The WTA website is here.
If you’re Australian, you already know all about this game. If you’re not, it’s considerably over a century old and never managed to thrive anywhere except Australia, so you probably don’t care about it.
Here’s what you need to know: it’s manly, they throw themselves at each other without helmets, it involves beer and big hits, and, like the NFL, it will eventually die off when concussion research gets more advanced.
But never mind that now. The key thing is that the league has been coming to China for a few years now. Unlike all the other foreign leagues, they play games that count in the standings. Cheers to the Aussies.
Here’s a look at the odd little sport. Note the peals of ecstasy from the announcers as dazed players wander the pitch. The match this year will be June 2, Port Adelaide v. St. Kilda at Jiangwan Stadium, northeast of the city, Jiangwan Stadium stop on Line 10. The 2019 season hasn’t begun yet, but in 2018 Port Adelaide was in the middle of the pack and St. Kilda was terrible.
If you’re Australian, tickets are on sale here.
The weirdest thing in Chinese sports is Kunlun Red Star. It’s a hockey team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the Russian-based outfit that’s the second-best hockey league in the world after the Canadian-based National Hockey League (NHL).
Allegedly created at a summit between the presidents of Russia and China in 2015, the team began life in September, 2016 as “Kunlun Red Star Beijing.” Where did they play? In Shanghai, of course, at the cozy Feiyang Skating Center in Pudong. It was said that Wukesong Arena in Beijing, the team’s preferred locale, had too many pop concerts scheduled. Or problems with their ice. Or rents that were too high. But no worries, it would be fixed by November or so.
Without any explanation or much marketing, the team stayed in Shanghai for three seasons, drawing around 1,000 people a game against Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Jokerit Helsinki and other KHL powerhouses. Every Russian expat in Shanghai made it to at least one match, usually giddy with disbelief that they were watching their favorite team in Shanghai for god’s sake. There were a lot of players’ wives and girlfriends, too. (If your other choices were Omsk and Astana, wouldn’t you go to Shanghai too?)
The Russian game is, in a word, better than the NHL. A bigger ice surface leads to play that’s faster, wide-open and less thuggish.
Kunlun Red Star has run through a passel of coaches in its three years, given Chinese passports to a bunch of Chinese-Canadians and failed to make the playoffs the last two years. It is unknown whether the team will play in Shanghai in 2019-20. In what is now a team tradition, the organization won't disclose where they'll be. Tickets are cheap. 100rmb will get you a seat that you’d have to pay 150usd for in the NHL. If Red Star is in Beijing, they’ll likely be in Shougang Ice Hockey Arena on the far western side of town.
Information on the KHL is available in English here. Links to Chinese and Russian versions of the site are there as well.
Whatever happens to Red Star, you can win many a bar bet with this question: what is the longest road trip in the history of professional sports leagues? The answer is Red Star and Slovan Bratislava in the KHL: 8,428 kilometers.
Anyone Up For Some Goons?
The NHL has fallen into the habit of sending teams to China to play pre-season games, but, like the NBA, they’re mind-numbingly meaningless and massive wallet hits. Not recommended. Mercedes-Benz Arena in October.