Manchester United, Messi and Bundesliga the online leaders in China
By Simon Ward
English giants Manchester United are still the most influential soccer team online in China, but Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi and the German Bundesliga and its clubs also have significant traction, according to a new study issued today.
In ‘Red Card 2018: China Digital Football Awards’, the latest edition of its analysis on European soccer’s digital performance in the country, Mailman, the Shanghai-based sports consultancy firm, claims that as the Chinese sports market matures, priorities are becoming clearer.
Andrew Collins, the company’s founder and chief executive, said: “2017 was a year of consolidation for China’s sports industry, it was less about headlines as it was about building real business models for China's sports media industry. As fans are now flooded with platforms and messages, the importance of a well-defined, 360-degree digital strategy has never been more important."
European clubs, players and leagues are all widely followed on digital platforms such as Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging website in China, and WeChat, one of the leading mobile applications. The study found that 60 per cent of sports fans on Weibo are interested in soccer.
As in last year’s report, Manchester United was found to be the number-one club online in the world’s most populous country, as the most followed team on both Weibo and WeChat.
The Premier League club’s WeChat account attracted three times as many reads as that of the second most popular account, that of Spain’s Real Madrid, while United’s victory in the Europa League final was the most-read European soccer club WeChat article of all time.
Phil Lynch, the chief executive of Manchester United, welcomed the findings, saying: “With over 107 million followers, China is one of Manchester United’s most important markets and we have a long history of innovation and fan engagement in the region. Through data analysis, geo-specific content creation and on-the-ground activities, we continue to be the most followed football club on China’s major social media platforms: Sina Weibo and WeChat.
“We are honoured to receive the Red Card award for the second consecutive year and we are excited about the ongoing opportunities to innovate and build our brand, allowing our fans in China to interact with the club and our products.”
The top five clubs are rounded out by Real Madrid, the winners of LaLiga and the Champions League last season, defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and two more English teams in Arsenal and Liverpool.
However, Mailman identified a general increase in online activity by European clubs in China in 2017, with a 50-per-cent rise in launches on Weibo and 10-per-cent growth on WeChat, and the teams are being encouraged to launch membership programmes on these platforms to turn casual fans into loyal ones that can be monetised.
The number of clubs with an official online presence in China now stands at 76, up from 55 a year ago, as more ‘challenger teams’ have come on board.
However, the vast majority of growth is still driven by the elite clubs, as of the 6 million followers gained in 2017, the top five account for more than 50 per cent, and only 12 gained more than 100,000.
Mailman said: “In order for this to change in 2018, exploring emerging platforms will be key to tapping into new groups. Sports apps are growing fast in China, Dongqiudi now has 2.7 million daily active users, making it the most active online football community.”
In terms of individual players, Barcelona and Argentina star Messi has overtaken Real Madrid and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to become the most influential player online in China.
Driven by the relaunch of his Chinese social media channels in May, Messi had the highest average engagement of any player – 13,320 – and accumulated over 1 million new followers in 2017.
In addition to Ronaldo, the other players to make the top five were Manchester United’s French internationals Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba and ex-England captain Wayne Rooney, who left Manchester United for Everton last July.
Mailman noted there was a 44-per-cent increase in the total number of Europe-based players with Weibo accounts last year, with new additions including Neymar, Harry Kane and Kevin De Bruyne.
Bundesliga drives on For the fourth successive year, the Bundesliga was the top league online in China, ranking ahead of the Premier League, LaLiga and France’s Ligue 1.
This reflects the continued commitment of the German league and its member clubs to attracting new followers and engaging with existing fans in the Far East.
It was announced this week that Bundesliga International, the worldwide sales and distribution arm of the DFL, Germany’s professional league, is to open a new office in China this year as part of its strategic growth plans.
This comes on the back of a long-running broadcast agreement with CCTV-5, the sports channel of the state broadcaster CCTV, and a five-year, $250-million rights deal signed with PPTV, the Suning-owned streaming service, in 2017.
Mailman found that the Bundesliga has 110-per-cent higher total engagement than the other European leagues and a 60-per-cent higher social output than the Premier League, LaLiga and Ligue 1.
Last year, Bundesliga fans spent 41.9 minutes per day on Weibo, making them the most active among Europe’s top leagues, and the league launched a strategic partnership with Baidu, the leading search engine in China, while also developing its dedicated Chinese website (bundesliga.cn).
Robert Klein, the chief executive of the Bundesliga, said the league’s number-one position “shows that ‘Football as it is meant to be’ is celebrated in the entire world and that we found a way to share our passion with the Chinese fans. Focusing engagement and being really close to the fans, understanding their dreams and treating these with respect is part of our DNA and has been celebrated with our clubs during the year, especially during our ‘Bundesliga Dream’ campaign which set a new industry benchmark in spring 2017.
“And the best is, this is just the beginning, with our partners CCTV and PPTV we will be able to share even more of the fascination of the Bundesliga with football fans in China.”
Mailman’s wider findings showed that over 70 per cent of Chinese fans follow more than one European team, typically from multiple leagues, challenging the traditional belief that leagues and clubs must be successful to won the voice of each individual fan.
It added that 2017 had shown that, for the first time, the majority of Chinese fans began to show a willingness to pay for content, prompting leading digital platforms such as Tencent and PPTV to refine their packages to match the market.
PPTV has stumped up an estimated $1.5 billion to acquire top European soccer content and from 2019-20 will have rights to the Premier League, LaLiga, the Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.
Mailman said: “This monopoly on football rights means that fans only need one subscription to watch all matches. However, this will be behind a paywall. With all the rights housed on PPTV, it will be important for European leagues to differentiate themselves from each other through additional content, production and innovative digital initiatives.”
The Bundesliga also won the award for best online campaign for ‘Bundesliga Dream’, while Bayern Munich won best use of technology for their VR experience at the Allianz Arena and best tour campaign for their 2017 visit to Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Bayern’s domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund won best live stream for a series filmed in both Germany and China featuring various players at the team’s training ground and stadium, preparation for the DFB Cup final and summer tour special in China.
Meanwhile, Arsenal won best sponsor activation for their Fan Zone events with kit supplier Puma in Beijing and Shanghai on their tour of the country.