Inter Milan struggling on the pitch, chasing growth in China

Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Inter Milan’s grand plans stretch far beyond Italy as it harnesses the connections of its new Chinese ownership to expand the fan base and attract sponsors in Asia.

There an illustrious history attached to the brand for Inter’s executives to sell to companies: From the three Champions League triumphs to the 18 Italian titles.

There’s just little to trumpet about the club’s current showing on the field.

[ MORE: UCL Power Rankings ]

In the first season since being bought by Chinese electronics retailer Suning in June, Inter has won just three of its eight league games and sits 11th in Serie A. The team heads into Thursday’s Europa League game against Southampton bottom of its group without a point after two losses.

Publicly, they aren’t panicking yet in the Inter boardroom or contemplating a change of coaches, with Frank de Boer only two months into the job.

“He came in 10 days before the start of the season,” chief executive Michael Bolingbroke said. “So we want to give him time.”

Bolingbroke, a former Manchester United executive, talked enthusiastically for 40 minutes during a visit to London, about a five-year plan to transform the club that’s approaching halftime.

“My remit when I joined (in 2012) was to get Inter back successful on and successful off the pitch,” Bolingbroke said. “Consistently in the Champions League, making money, not losing money.”

The change of ownership from Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir to Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Jindong has enabled Inter to “accelerate the plan,” Bolingbroke said.

Losses of around 60 million euros ($66 million) are set to be reported for 2015-16 but Inter expects to have cut them by a third this year and be profitable by 2019.

[ MORE: Jermaine Jones returning to Colorado, USMNT ]

Although revenue is forecast to break the 200 million-euro barrier this season, that is only a third of Manchester United’s 2016-17 target, one of the biggest in soccer. The gulf in the clubs’ moneymaking abilities reflects just how far Serie A lags the English Premier League, after being the dominant competition in Europe at the end of the last century.

Suning’s ownership can help to redress the balance, with Bolingbroke regarding Chinese owners as a game-changer for Inter.

“They think we as a club have completely underestimated the value of being in China and we are guilty of not exploiting the Chinese market enough,” he said. “When we sat down with them, they asked why we don’t have more sponsors in Asia.”

Why would Asia sponsors want to be associated with a struggling team in a league that lacks the global coverage of the Premier League or La Liga? In China, hitching yourself to soccer is in vogue, viewed as a shortcut to securing influence in high places now that President Xi Jinping has encouraged investment in the game to strengthen the domestic league and national team.

But Suning, which also owns Jiangsu Suning club at home, is not just frittering cash on soccer to rise up the business strata.

“If it was all about politics, why would they say a priority is not losing money?” Bolingbroke stresses.

To make money, 12 Inter staff will be operating from a Chinese sales office in Nanjing by next month, working closely with Suning’s local HQ.

“As European clubs, it’s very hard in Asia unless you have a bridgehead, opening doors,” Bolingbroke said. “If you don’t have a Suning with you, you don’t have access to that business in China. With the access they have, we have opportunities we didn’t have before they came along.”

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Inter estimates 148 million of its 311 million fans are in China, citing data from research firm Repucom. Inter is also working in tandem with Jiangsu Suning, the Chinese Super League club also owned by Zhang.

“They have spent a lot of time trying to understand how our academy system works,” Bolingbroke said. “They want Jiangsu Suning to be top of the Chinese Super League, not by importing players but developing their own.”

There is no directive to bring Chinese players over to the San Siro just to pander to the ownership at home.

“We fail if we don’t win trophies,” Bolingbroke said. “You aren’t going to be able to do that if you compromised your technical squad because a signing would be good for sponsorship.”

Winning with the current squad is hard enough at the moment as it endures a four-game run without a win.

Rob Harris is at and