EPL scores most highly among Chinese fans

The importance of the Chinese market for football is growing

OSLO, NORWAY - JULY 30: Jose Mourinho, the manager of Manchester United, before the game today between Valerenga and Manchester United at Ullevaal Stadion on July 30, 2017 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Andrew Halseid-Budd/Getty Images)
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The English Premier League (EPL) is head and shoulders above other leagues when it comes to popularity in China, according to the UK-based global branding consultancy Brand Finance.

The firm's latest survey of 2,800 respondents in 10 major cities in China covering 16 different leagues and 314 individual clubs worldwide revealed EPL clubs are by far the best supported of all foreign leagues. Some 56 per cent of all Chinese fans follow an EPL team while 34 per cent follow a Bundesliga club, the next best performing European league. Manchester United’s viewership of 42 per cent significantly outperforms its European competitors AC Milan and FC Bayern, which garnered a slightly lower 33 per cent apiece. Cristiano Ronaldo is China’s most popular player while his Real Madrid club boss, Zinedine Zidane, is the country’s most popular manager.

Manchester United has successfully used its strong on-pitch performance to market the club globally in order to maximise financial return, Brand Finance noted, and this has certainly been the case in China. In 2016 for example, United signed a multi-year deal with Sina Sports to make MUTV, the club’s official TV channel, available to 108 million fans in China. The deal's financial value was not disclosed.

"Reaching, interacting and communicating with fans through digital and social is much better than traditional television, which is a very one-way street, Sam Li, the head of content acquisition and strategic partnerships at Sina Sports, told The Independent last year. "On digital and social, clubs can easily build a strong, engaged community that truly feels connected to the club, in addition to receiving instant feedback from their fan communities. With traditional television, it is a very isolated experience for the fan and beyond very basic ratings, the club isn't receiving much feedback on the content they produce."

The Sina Sports partnership allows Manchester United to access a broad scope of digital resources that Sina Sports is able to leverage as part of a larger digital ecosystem. While Sina Sports is quite large, it is just one channel under the umbrella of its parent company, Sina Corp. Sina Corp owns the largest open-platform social media platform in China, Sina Weibo, which is often referred to as “China’s Twitter.”

Strong social media campaigns have also seen tangible gains as the Red Devils rank second on all Chinese platforms except QQ, behind only Guangzhou Evergrade,China's favourite club.

Online streaming is the most popular method of following football among the younger, more avid fan base and clubs must capitalise on the opportunity to increase broadcasting and commercial revenue in China through striking lucrative media deals, Brand Finance said. In addition, there is growing social media use and engagement among Chinese football fans as 32 per cent of all fans followed a league/club/player on social media in the past month, the survey showed. This number increases to 37 per cent among the lowest age category (18-27), which highlights the opportunity for clubs and sponsors to engage with fans and increase their following across arguably the most important growth market.

“The importance of the Chinese market for football is growing and the trend is reflected in the differences in brand value between those clubs that do well in China and those that are only starting to realise the country’s potential," said Andy Moore, Brand Finance’s insights director. "European clubs need to be more aware of the needs of their Chinese fans and make an extra effort to communicate with them in Chinese, as the research shows 88 per cent of respondents would like to see websites and content in their native language.”

Buying merchandise and products from brands associated with fans’ favourite teams is very popular in China, Brand Finance's report showed. Indeed, 88 per cent of the most avid fans bought merchandise from a club and 42 per cent bought brands that sponsor their favourite club. Capitalising on this commercial potential, Real Madrid has struck a deal with the Chinese platform Alibaba to sell club merchandise online, increasing their reach to a potential additional 600 million consumers.

The propensity for European clubs to tour China out of season also helps. “It’s easier to hold training camps and pre-season tours in Europe and United States, but Manchester United and other clubs who are serious about capturing market share actively choose to come to China,” Mr Li said.

Brand Fiance said that in order to "best exploit a wide pool of fans with a high propensity to spend, clubs must focus their attention on increasing awareness and familiarity among the Chinese fan base".

And cutting-edge tech can provide a further boost. Tim Crow, the chief executive of Synergy, a sports and entertainment marketing agency, told The Independent that "the acceleration in digital technology means that the day is coming soon when the big clubs can finally look beyond overseas tours and replica shirts to unlock the value of their global fan bases".

Beyond digital products, Mr Crow specifically highlighted the advancements in virtual reality as a potentially lucrative source of commercial revenues in the future, calling it a “game changer … given its potential to deliver premium experiences at scale”.