Red Card 2015

China Digital Football Index

Produced by Mailman Group



Global Teams, Made in China

It was 2011 when the first global football team, Liverpool FC, launched an official presence on China’s social media. A team rich in history, culture and identity, the club demonstrated to the wider football community the appetite for European football was there.

Fast forward 4 years and we now see more than 30 active teams across China’s social media and video networks. It's no longer Europe’s elite making an impact, we’re now seeing teams competing for fan mindshare from all regions of Europe. Teams have quickly realised that China is a key component of becoming a global team.

There were a number of winners in the Red Card 2015. German football was again a big winner with the launch of the official Bundesliga Weibo and the national team’s success at the World Cup both proved to deliver value for the German teams online. We saw Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 amass over 1,000,000 followers in under a year on Weibo platforms, whilst Bayern Munich continued their strong growth as a fan favourite.

The relationship with winning and fan development is no more prevalent than in China, where many fans support multiple teams without the direct attachment to location or family upbringing. Real Madrid were the real winners here by not only seeing success on the pitch in the Champions League but topping our Red Card 2015 league table as China’s most reputable football team across the digital landscape. Star players, success and broader reach across China’s online eco-system has allowed the club to develop relationships well beyond tier 1 cities.

Digital media in China also saw several changes. The technology giants Tencent and Sina continued to compete for top spot amongst social users, Tencent's WeChat became the most significant platform for teams to explore as Sina Weibo, whilst still remaining a major source of news, had to settle for a more passive form of engagement as users now spread their time across both platforms. WeChat has seen teams such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Bayern Munich all develop rich social followings on the network.

So what does it all mean for 2015? This year we expect to see Weibo and WeChat stabilise their positions in the market, the new short form video network Weishi is sure to spark the interest of many top clubs and online commerce will see more teams establishing official stores - now wanting to cash in on the social footprint. With tours in the summer for many clubs, digital will play an increasingly important role in securing commercial deals in China. The demand for rich, integrated media and sponsorships will create new deal opportunities for progressive football clubs.

Andrew Collins
CEO, Mailman Group



  1. Introduction

  2. Methodology

  3. Final Standings


  5. Engagement

  1. Buzz

  2. WeChat

  3. Website

  4. E-commerce

  5. Video

  1. Winners Circle

  2. Biggest Movers and Shakers

  3. 2014 Highlights

  4. The Big Leagues

  5. National Teams

  1. Weibo XI

  2. Tmall

  3. CSL Business Value

  4. Sign Up for a Free Brand Report


Mailman is a China based sporting and consulting group with expertise in digital and social media, commercial and media partnerships and brand strategy. Our proprietary technology, KAWO, helps international brands be better at Chinese social media.

The 4th annual Red Card 2015: China Digital Football Index is the world's most comprehensive study on Europe's top football teams and their development across China's digital landscape. The index is the industry's most widely read report, assessing clubs on 7 key performance indicators including online popularity, engagement, network growth, digital presence and online buzz.

This year's report analyses more teams than ever before and features a number of new components including an interactive design, measurement across e-commerce and WeChat engagement.


The data for the Red Card 2015 was collected from November 11th to January 11th. We assessed European clubs in China with over 1 million followers over 7 core competencies to provide a detailed analysis of their digital strengths and weaknesses.

Hover over a category to see how we calculated the value of each metric.

Clubs were ranked based on their overall number of Sina & Tencent Weibo followers.

  • Followers

  • Points were awarded according to the median number of online fans to ensure parity, with 80% of teams below 5m followers.

  • 1 - 1.5m = 10pts

  • 1.5 - 2m = 15pts

  • 2 - 2.5m = 20pts

  • 2.5 - 3m = 25pts

  • 3 - 4m = 30pts

  • 4 - 5m = 35pts

  • 5-7m = 40pts

  • 7-10m = 45pts

  • 10m+ = 50pts

A club’s average engagement is the combined forwards, comments and likes per Weibo post over a 60 day period.

  • Engagement

  • A club’s average engagement is the combined forwards, comments and likes per Weibo post over a 60 day period.

  • >20 = 5pts

  • 20 - 40 = 10pts

  • 40 - 60 = 15pts

  • 60 - 80 = 20pts

  • 80 - 100 = 25pts

  • 100 - 150 = 30pts

  • 150 - 200 = 35pts

  • 200 - 250 = 40pts

  • 250 - 300 = 45pts

  • 300+ = 50pts

Online exposure is calculated according to the number of Sina Weibo mentions of each team across the whole network.

  • Buzz

  • A mention is defined as a post containing the club name and a specific football keyword.
    1 point was awarded per 1,000 mentions.

There were two factors taken into account for this category: 1) an active WeChat presence and 2) the average number of daily reads.

  • WeChat

  • Clubs scored 10 points for having an active account and 1 point per 1,000 daily reads.

  • *WeChat follower numbers are private.

10 points were awarded to a club with an official Chinese language website.

  • Website

  • 10 points were awarded to a club with an official Chinese language website.

Over the course of 2014, several clubs launched official China online stores, awarding points based on the strength of their eStore.

  • E-commerce

  • Tmall is the number 1 B2C retail platform in China, therefore we awarded 10 points for an official presence.

  • Teams with an alternate Chinese language store scored 5 points.

There are two key video platforms in China currently utilized by professional football teams: Youku and Weishi.

  • Video

  • 5 points were awarded to a club with a verified video channel, with 10 points awarded if a team is active across both platforms.


Club Followers
Engagement Buzz WeChat Website E-commerce Video Total
1. Real Madrid Logo

Real Madrid

4M 35 45 40 15 10 5 0 150
2. Barcelona Logo


7.6M 45 45 35 0 10 5 0 140
3. Bayern Munich Logo

Bayern Munich

4.4M 35 50 23 20 10 0 0 138
4. Manchester United Logo

Manchester United

13M 50 35 36 0 10 5 0 136
5. Liverpool Logo

Liverpool FC

3.3M 30 25 23 20 10 5 10 123
6. Arsenal Logo


4.6M 35 20 24 20 10 10 0 119
7. Manchester City Logo

Manchester City

9.6M 45 15 18 11 10 5 5 109
8. Chelsea Logo


3.9M 30 20 23 0 10 5 0 88
9. Tottenham Hotspur Logo

Tottenham Hotspur

2.2M 20 10 5 11 10 0 10 66
10. PSG Logo

Paris Saint-Germain

1.5M 15 10 2 11 10 5 5 58
11. Dortmund Logo

Borussia Dortmund

1.1M 10 30 11 0 0 5 0 56
12. AC Milan Logo

AC Milan

2.1M 20 10 5 0 10 5 0 50
13. Schalke 04 Logo

Schalke 04

1.1M 10 15 4 10 10 0 0 49
14. Juventus Logo


1.8M 15 5 9 0 10 0 0 39
15. Ajax Logo


1.2M 10 5 2 0 10 0 5 32


The number of Weibo followers provides the most basic measurement of a club’s popularity online in China. We included the number of online fans from both of China’s top micro-blogging platforms: Sina and Tencent Weibo.

Manchester United increased their online fan base by 11 million new followers this year, demonstrating the power of a global football brand.

Despite finishing 2nd, Manchester City experienced by far the lowest growth of any team with only 30,000 new followers this year.

*Total WeChat followers are not included in the popularity category due to the numbers being private.



    364 avg/post


    261 avg/post


    252 avg/post


    191 avg/post


    115 avg/post


    94 avg/post


    78 avg/post

Bayern Munich boasted by far the highest engagement level largely due to their active and vocal Chinese supporters clubs. Several factors contributed to their dominance in this category: Germany's World Cup victory, the powerful support from the Bundesliga in China and the club’s recent high profile success in Europe.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Juventus are current Serie A champions yet have an average engagement of just 9, showing that success on the pitch does not guarantee online popularity in China.

second and most
important category included
in this report is a club’s online
engagement. The engagement of a club reflects the level of direct communication with active fans. We track the likes, forwards and comments of each team to measure the average
number of interactions
per post.

‘like’ button was
only fully integrated into
Weibo accounts early in 2014
and has changed the way that users interact with club accounts online. ‘Likes’ make up ~50% of a club’s daily engagement, with
fans 3 times more likely to
‘like’ a post than to
share it.

Chinese fans are traditionally drawn to the underdog as they tend to demonstrate values which are respected in Chinese culture. This is highlighted by Borussia Dortmund who achieved the highest engagement level relative to their followers. The club’s powerful relationship with their fans, best demonstrated by the world-renowned Westfalenstadion atmosphere, is a key factor of their success as this is highly valued by the Chinese.


  • Real Madrid Logo

    40 points

  • Barcelona Logo

    35 points

  • Manchester United Logo

    36 points

  • Bayern Munich Logo

    23 points

  • Arsenal Logo

    24 points

  • Liverpool Logo

    23 points

  • Chelsea Logo

    23 points

  • Manchester City Logo

    18 points

  • Borussia Dortmund Logo

    11 pts

  • Juventus Logo

    9 pts

  • AC Milan Logo

    5 pts

  • Tottenham Hotspur Logo

    5 pts

  • Schalke 04 Logo

    4 pts

  • Paris Saint-Germain Logo

    2 pts

  • Ajax Logo

    2 pts

*1 point is equivalent to 1,000 Sina Weibo mentions.

‘Buzz’ refers to the number of organic discussions taking place across the entire Weibo network, including conversations outside of a club's official channel. By tracking the number of football related posts from all Sina Weibo users and scanning for specific keywords, we gained a credible understanding as to the level of online exposure per club. Our listening tool trawled Weibo over a 60 day period. Any post that mentioned a team’s name and a football related keyword was pulled into our database.

Real Madrid had the highest level of ‘Buzz’ with over 40,000 mentions per month. The club’s 2014 Champions League victory generated enormous online exposure and media attention, benefiting from China’s obsession with this tournament.

It’s common in China to support multiple teams, often from different European leagues, therefore we ran a study to determine who is ‘China’s second favorite team’. To further back their claim as the most talked about team online, Real Madrid also finished first in this survey with over 17% of the votes.


WeChat is China’s fastest growing social network with over 500 million active monthly users. 8 of this year’s Red Card teams have established an official presence on this platform, with Real Madrid and Schalke 04 the most recent additions.

WeChat has slowly opened up as a social platform with fans now able to share, comment and like a club’s posts. In addition, previously private data has been made public, most notably the number of daily article reads which provides a clear indication of each club’s influence on this platform.

WeChat Results Red Card 2015

Liverpool topped the list as the most viewed club on WeChat, beating Arsenal and Bayern Munich by a small margin. Real Madrid, due to their highly irregular posting schedule have less than half the readership of the top three clubs.

Barcelona were the first European team to launch a bi-lingual WeChat account in September 2014 with the first indication that WeChat is becoming a global platform. However, in just over a month, their account became inactive leaving their WeChat fan-base empty handed.

WeChat Results Red Card 2015


A Chinese language website has become an increasingly important means of communication with fans in China, acting as the hub for all content and club activity in the region.

Borussia Dortmund is the only club featured in this report that does not have a Chinese website.


China’s e-commerce sector exploded in 2014 with over $2 trillion USD in transactions, an annual growth of 25%. This figure includes all online sales from e-commerce giants such as Tmall and JD, as well as B2B transactions. Clubs have been cautious to develop official online stores in China due to the dominant grey market, however there is an increasing demand amongst Chinese football fans to buy authentic products direct from the clubs themselves.

Arsenal became the first club to register an official store on Tmall, the most popular online retail platform in China.
Bayern Munich, Red Card 2014 champions, are one of only five teams featured in this report without a Chinese language online store, despite having a China website.

The other 9 clubs manage their e-commerce presence in China via third party agencies. On the surface, these alternatives to Tmall allow clubs to localize the language and accept Chinese payment methods, however do not solve the problems of high postage costs and slower delivery speeds.

The overwhelming advantages of using Tmall include reduced delivery fees, Chinese consumers' familiarity with the platform and fast delivery speeds. Clubs also benefit from Tmall’s powerful promotional resources leading to major brand awareness and a huge volume of referral traffic.

*Tottenham Hotspur are launching their official Tmall store in February 2015.

Red Card Shopping Cart


WeiShi Logo

A new video platform rose to prominence in 2014, adopting an almost identical model to Vine. Weishi allows clubs to engage with their fans through short form video content, highly popular amongst Chinese fans. One Weishi feature unavailable on Vine is the ability to promote 8 second clips from longer videos, directing traffic back to a club’s official video channel.

Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur became the first clubs to open a presence on this video network: joining the NBA as the most followed official sports accounts.

Youku Logo

Youku is one of the longest-standing Chinese social platforms as a direct equivalent to YouTube. Clubs can register an official channel to host all their video content and act as a social sharing hub. Five teams: Ajax, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and PSG, have an official and active Youku video channel.

Tottenham Hotspur are the real winners here, with the most engaged video channel of any club on the table.

Chinese internet users are 90% less likely to subscribe to an official Youku channel when compared to their Western counterparts on YouTube.


Red Card 2015 Champions

Real Madrid Logo

Real Madrid

150 Points

#1 UEFA Ranking


Real Madrid Logo



Real Madrid climbed from 4th place last year to the top of the Red Card 2015. Highlighting the importance of Champions League success in China, for the 2nd year in a row the victors of this competition also claimed top spot in the Red Card Index. The key factors behind their digital success include launch of an official WeChat channel, their focus on sharable fan content (2nd highest engagement) and their strong ties with Chinese media which propelled them to the #1 most talked about club online. To further support their final standing, Real Madrid were also voted Chinese fans’ favorite 2nd club in an online poll.

AC Milan Logo



AC Milan dropped from 9th to 12th in this year’s Red Card being surpassed by several of their competitors. With an annual follower growth of only 16%, the second lowest of all teams in this year’s Red Card, and the third lowest level of engagement, it is clear that a team cannot rely on their reputation alone. AC Milan are one of only two teams without an officially verified club presence on Sina Weibo, the number 1 social network in China, and also are yet to launch on WeChat. This presents a clear opportunity for the club to make the most of the evolving digital media landscape in China, and close the gap on their European rivals.

What is the single most important thing for a club to consider when launching online in China?

"Clubs need to put the fans first, then they can think about financial gains."

Jimmy Lee (Chelsea Fan)


  • Premier League 2014 Finale
  • Champions League 2014 Final
  • Germany vs Brazil 7-1
  • South American Players Summer Transfers
  • 11th May
    Premier League Finale
    4,500+ engagement

  • 17th May
    FA Cup Final
    3,900+ engagement

  • 24th May
    Champions League Final
    9,100 engagement

  • 24th June
    Suarez Bite
    5,500 engagement

  • 8th July
    Germany 7-1 Brazil
    13,100 engagement

  • 13th July
    World Cup Final
    13,000 engagement

  • Big 4 Summer
    10,700 engagement

  • 16th November
    Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan China TV Series

  • 2014 FA Cup Final
  • Suarez World Cup Bite
  • 2014 World Cup Final
  • Spurs Football Dreams Tour

How much does a club's success on the pitch impact their online popularity?

"Success on-the-pitch is the #1 reason for new fans to follow a team, however is by no means the only factor. Clubs who are most active in their interactions with Chinese fans have the best chance of building a loyal fan base. Chinese fans want to be appreciated by their club."

Ruofu Zhu (Tottenham Hotspur Fan)


Three of the major European football leagues have an official presence online in China: the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga. To measure the level of influence each has over Chinese fans, the leagues were assessed according to the strength of their Weibo and WeChat channels. Having the support of an official league account is a major boost for the clubs in each respective country, and is a deciding factor for new football fans when selecting which club to follow.

Click a logo to find out more.


Despite being the latest top European league to launch a digital presence in China, the Bundesliga account has overtaken the Premier League to become the #1 most engaged across Weibo and WeChat, and has surpassed La Liga in follower numbers. Their interaction with the German National team and 7 Bundesliga clubs on Weibo has created a powerful German football community and the timing of their launch to coincide with the World Cup contributed to rapid growth online.

  • 79

  • 10,300

  • 1,300

Bundesliga China Growth Graph


Having been inactive in China for 9 months of the past year, La Liga failed to achieve the same level of success as the top Spanish clubs. Despite having the second highest number of mentions, their extremely low engagement level reveals a lack of understanding about Chinese football fans. This is highlighted by their failure to launch an official WeChat account, being the only active league without a presence on the fastest growing social platform in China.

  • 9

  • 11,700

  • La Liga does not have an official WeChat account

La Liga China Growth Graph


The premier league had a year headstart on their German rival, and have capitalized on this to become the #1 most followed European league in China. They benefitted from the popularity of the English clubs’ Chinese social media accounts and the recent inactivity of La Liga to claim top spot as the most talked about league online.

  • 44

  • 22,300

  • 850

China Premier League Growth Graph

How common is it to change the teams that you support?

"The new generation of fans may change season by season, but the older generation will only support one team, although they may follow another from a different league."

Freddie Zhao (Arsenal Fan)


The popularity of European football online in China this year extended beyond domestic clubs, with national teams becoming the focal point of China’s media attention during this summer’s World Cup. Mailman took a look at how the top three most active national teams competed on Weibo: Germany, England and the Netherlands.

Victory for Germany in this year’s World Cup was a major boost to their online popularity in China, ensuring their status as the number one national team on Weibo. Success on the pitch boosted their level of followers by almost 75% over the tournament. The DFB Weibo page has been supported by the Bundesliga official account, acting as a springboard for the launch of several new Bundesliga clubs.

After being eliminated in the quarter-finals, the Belgian FA appeared to give up on their China presence having been inactive ever since.

“40% of fans follow a team online because of their star players”
-Red Card 2014


  • Neuer

  • Dani Alves

  • Pique

  • Chiellini

  • Chamberlain

  • Rooney

  • Iniesta

  • Kaka

  • Messi

  • Aguero

  • Ronaldo

The top 10 players online have 49 million total followers combined, compared to 53 million followers for the top 10 clubs online, proving how important players can be in driving follower growth. The Premier League is the most represented league in China with 20+ players online, whilst La Liga and Serie A both have 8. There are 3x more attacking players active online, highlighting a preference for goal scorers. The #1 reason for a player to launch an individual presence in China, is to increase the chance of commercial success in the region by building a strong personal following.

Lionel Messi has more Chinese online fans than the total following of all 6 Spanish clubs combined.

The authenticity of a player’s Weibo account is vital to its popularity. Key factors in maintaining this credibility include the time of posting, the language used and the frequency of interaction with fans.

For a free report on fan development and player representation, please fill out your details here.

What do you expect for 2015?

"Teams to make a push for e-commerce and summer tours to China."

Yujun Wu (Schalke 04 Fan)


Tmall is China’s #1 online retail platform. Owned by the Alibaba group, Tmall became an independent platform in 2011 after launching as the B2C arm for Alibaba’s Taobao. So far, Arsenal are the only team with an officially registered Tmall store.

  • 5 advantages of Tmall

  • Low postage fees

  • Faster delivery speeds

  • Localized customer service

  • Local payment integration

  • Consumer’s familiarity with the platform

We collected data from Tmall over a seven day period during the first week of the football transfer window to see who was the most searched club and which team had the highest number of purchases.

Red Card 2015 winners, Real Madrid, were the most searched for club on Tmall with almost 1,000 purchases made in 7 days.

Of the 15 clubs analysed, the most popular purchases were priced at RMB 130 (€ 18), significantly lower than the average cost of an official team jersey (~RMB 500 = ~€ 71).

*Statistics provided by KungFu Data, a private e-commerce intelligence service for foreign brands selling in China.



Are European clubs more popular than the Chinese?

"Yes, because of 5 reasons: star players, club history, quality of football, stadium atmosphere, and less corruption."

Ke Ke (Manchester United Fan)



270,000,000 RMB

net income of the CSL in 2014

The average attendance of CSL fixtures was over 18,500, #1in Asia and within the top 10 in the world.


2,000,000,000 RMB

total revenue of all clubs in 2014

The highest percentage of investors is from FMCG and retail organisations with 35%, while finance and real estate are at 17% and 15% respectively.


470,000,000 RMB

spent on transfers in 2014

The salary of a player has maintained it's year-on-year increase of more than 20%, a consecutive trend since 2011.

Netease Logo

All statistics were provided by Netease Media Technology

How do you see the popularity of the Chinese Super League growing over the coming year?

"Fans are definitely more interested in the CSL, but it has not yet reached the heights of the European leagues."

Vincent Chan (Liverpool Fan)

Thank you for reading the Red Card 2015

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Special thanks to the Mailman team for their outstanding work over the last 3 months in putting together this report. In particular:

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Disclaimer: Whilst we have maintained a neutral voice and demonstrate no bias towards any particular football club we acknowledge several of the teams are on retained agency fees with Mailman.