There is a trend across the country as urbanisation spawns twin desires for leisure and entertainment. Beneficiaries include Europe's biggest teams, such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid, all of which have gained huge followings in China and Asia more broadly in the past decade.
"All the top European clubs have huge dollar signs in their eyes when they look at China," says Cameron Wilson, founder of Wild East Football, an English language Chinese football blog. "People have been really going bold on Chinese football so that when it finally does explode, they will be in a position to capitalise."
While ticket sales and advertising have been slower to take off, merchandising is in evidence in everything from a Manchester United themed bar in Shanghai to a thriving online trade in David Beckham products (including life-sized dolls).
Wealthier buyers are putting their money into the real thing, placing dizzying bets on the success of the sport in China. Among the most eye-catching was January's move by Wang Jianlin, China's richest man, to invest $52m buying a stake in Atletico Madrid, Spanish league winners in 2014.
Last week a Chinese consortium including China Media Capital dutifully bought a 13 per cent stake in Man City's parent company for $400m.
Li Ruigang, the billionaire head of CMC, also recently gave the domestic game a vote of confidence when he outbid state network CCTV to pay Rmb8bn for the television rights to China's super league for the next five years. This was a hefty premium on previous years, when the going rate was about Rmb50m a year.
Peter Schloss, chief executive at CastleHill Partners, a Beijing-based sports and media agency, says the Chinese leadership's backing is key. "Xi Jinping is an avid soccer fan and so people are following his lead. It's typical. When the government gets behind a certain sector, a lot of people pile into that sector, and the first ones in usually do make money."
The deals have not been limited to foreign clubs. Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, the ecommerce group, last year took a 50 per cent stake in Guangzhou Evergrande, the best team in China that recently won the Asia Cup for the second time in three years.
The other compelling reason behind the push into football is that China is among the world's most underpenetrated sports markets. Total revenues from ticketing, merchandise and advertising were estimated at $3.4bn this year, compared with $63.6bn in the US, according to consultancy PwC.
But with the Chinese market among the world's third-fastest growing, European clubs are anxious to spread their brands into the country through partnership programmes, exhibition matches, merchandise sales and Mandarin language websites.
Punters also bet big on Chinese super league matches, which have continued to grow in popularity in spite of being tarnished by a series of match-fixing scandals.
Yet another vital hurdle remains to Chinese football success — its players are just not good enough to compete in the world's top leagues.
"There is nobody Chinese playing at a major club in Europe," notes Mr Wilson. "That is surprising considering how desperate European clubs are to sign a really good Chinese player — that would be a great way to make themselves popular in China. "
A superstar player would be transformative, say analysts who point to the effect Shanghai-born Yao Ming had on Chinese basketball. The former Houston Rockets player, who retired in 2011, almost single-handedly popularised basketball as a national sport in China.