Huawei sponsors Wellington Phoenix football franchise

Latest sports sponsorship highlights importance of New Zealand market access to controversial company.

Four months after Huawei chief executive Ren Zhengfei chose to give his first media interview in Wellington, New Zealand, the company has inked a three-year deal to sponsor the Wellington Phoenix A-League football team.

On its own, that isn't particularly newsworthy, but the move is further acknowledgement of how important its New Zealand business is to the Chinese company, despite the relatively small scale of local deals.

Unlike in Australia, where Huawei has been excluded from the National Broadband Network (NBN) build due to security concerns, it is supplying not just the government-sponsored national rollout of Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) in New Zealand, but also mobile and fixed-line providers throughout the country.

That has seen Huawei's business grow seven-fold in New Zealand in just three years, from total sales of NZ$16.8 million in the year to the end of December 2009 to NZ$114.1 million in 2012 (the 2012 accounts can be seen here [PDF]).

The company is clearly keen to burnish its credentials and prove detractors, who say it is still too close to the Chinese government, wrong. To help build its New Zealand beachhead, Huawei had even, until earlier this year, provided vendor finance for the construction of a new mobile network for challenger 2degrees.

The fact that New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes security alliance, which also includes the US, Australia, the UK, and Canada, lifts the strategic importance of the market.

Huawei's chief technology officer, professor Sanqi Li, again defended the company against security criticisms this week.

"No, we are not a threat," he told The Register. "There's no substance, just more speculation."

Appearing to refer to recent revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, Li said Huawei is an easy target, but security is an industry-wide problem.

The Snowden revelations have allowed Huawei a rare chance to front-foot the PR war, accusing the NSA of illegal practices after it was revealed that Huawei is a surveillance target.

Huawei has ramped up sponsorship activity globally this year, after announcing its first team sponsorship of the Canberra Raiders Australian rugby league team last March.

"I am delighted that Huawei see the alignment between themselves building a great brand in New Zealand and the Phoenix building a great club," Phoenix general manager David Dome said when announcing that Huawei would be the front-of-shirt sponsor of the team.

Huawei has 150,000 staff members and operates in 140 countries.