• Denis Green

China Sports Business Weekly | 17th January

Welcome to the Red Card special edition of the China Sports Business Weekly.


We spoke with a couple of the winners, including Martin Axford - Head of Digital at the Premier League, and Toni Claveria - Head of APAC at FC Barcelona, to discuss the great 2019 they had on digital in China.


Also in the news this week, foreign salary caps to help domestic football, Nongfu Spring now LaLiga’s Official Drinking Water Supplier, Pisen sponsors the CBA, and Super League Gaming engages with Wanda Cinemas.


Top Industry News

1) Mailman Launches Red Card 2020: China Digital Football Awards Report Now in its 9th year, the report continues to set a reference point for European football leagues, teams, and players, and their success across China’s digital landscape. The English Premier League, FC Barcelona, and Cristiano Ronaldo took home the biggest awards on the night, while there were also 12 digital awards judged by industry experts and platforms. Download the report (English). Read more on CNN (English) and Ecosports (Chinese)


Mailman Take: Congratulations to all the winners and participants across the board. 2019 was a monumental year for many reasons: we saw 100% year-on-year growth in followers on Weibo and a 45% increase in engagement across the world’s biggest teams as football fast becomes more socially relevant and digitally friendly on China’s major platforms. There were 16.3 million new followers on Weibo across the top clubs, with more than 20 teams now engaging their fans on Douyin as digital continued to explode in China over the past 12 months.


2) Foreign Salary Cap to Help Domestic Football The Chinese Football Association (CFA) stated the new salary cap for foreign players will improve domestic players and ‘deflating financial bubbles’. Liu Yi, the CFA’s secretary-general, stated: “Many teams have been dependent on foreign players in their forward lines. The Chinese midfielders simply need to get the ball and pass to the foreign strikers. So we have to restrict the importation of the priciest foreign players. Read more on SportBusiness (English) and Xinhuanet (Chinese) Mailman Take: This salary cap introduction may benefit the Chinese men’s national football team in the short-to-medium term, however, energy and education should be focused & invested at the bottom of the pyramid giving young players every opportunity to improve and become professional footballers.


3) Nongfu Spring Becomes LaLiga’s Official Drinking Water Supplier in China The well-known Chinese drinks brand reached an agreement with LaLiga to become the official supplier of drinking water for the Spanish championship in China for the current season. Read more on LaLiga Weibo (Chinese)



4) Pisen Electronics Sponsors the Chinese Basketball Association

The consumer electronics signed a deal with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) to become an official sponsor of the CBA League. The Guangzhou-based company is looking to build brand recognition in younger consumer demographics and basketball fans within China, especially on social media. Read more on SportBusiness (English) and Sina Sports (Chinese)


5) Super League Gaming Partners with Wanda Cinemas Games The global leader in competitive amateur gaming announced a partnership with Wanda Cinemas Games, a subsidiary of Chinese media conglomerate Wanda Media. The new alliance will initially bring live, competitive gaming experiences to Wanda’s 700+ owned and operated theaters in multiple cities across China, with more activations to be announced in the future. Read more on Yahoo! (English)


From The Top


Martin Axford - Head of Digital at the English Premier League


1. Congratulations on retaining the Red Card award. What were some of the key milestones in 2019 for the Premier League in China?

Thanks – we are delighted to receive this recognition. Having China host the Premier League Asia Trophy in the summer was a clear highlight and provided our local team with the perfect opportunity to gather and publish locally relevant content via our Chinese mobile app and social media. We have a fantastic, passionate fanbase in China and the Premier League Asia Trophy tournament was a key milestone in terms of fan engagement – not just through the live matches, but also our localised digital and social channels. The continued growth and engagement of our short-form video content on Douyin as we passed 1 billion views has also been very satisfying. The popularity of our original design assets on Weibo, reflecting popular culture and trends in China, means this is an area we’ll continue to invest in and develop.


2. Does the league plan to work more closely with its clubs in the future or will the clubs continue to operate separately to the league?

Many of our clubs successfully engage with their loyal and passionate fans in China directly via their official channels and social media and it is important they are able to continue to deepen engagement with their fans. One of the key objectives of the Premier League’s global digital strategy is to offer further support to all of its member clubs and help increase their reach and engagement in this important market, so we are committed to working together while operating distinctive and complementary channels.


3. How is the Premier League working with PP Sports to grow the fan base and viewership in China?

We are proud to have PP Sports as our broadcast licensee in China and see enormous potential to grow the Premier League’s fan base and viewership in China. Through regular dialogue and planning, we will continue to identify opportunities for content collaborations and promotions to offer fans unrivalled access to the Premier League alongside PP Sports’ premium matchday coverage and shoulder programming. Last summer’s Asia Trophy was a great example of how we have already worked together successfully and we are excited about developing the relationship further via our respective digital channels.


4. What is the Premier League doing to support grassroots in China and inspire the next generation of football players?

We have long-standing relationships with football organisations in China to help facilitate the continued development of football at all levels of the game. Through our Premier Skills programme, delivered in partnership with the British Council, we have trained thousands of football coaches and referees across 25 cities in China and contributed to the country’s football reform agenda by increasing awareness of football among young people and encouraging coaches to engage and inspire the next generation of players. We also work closely with the CFA and CSL, providing support for youth, coaching and refereeing development, as well as sharing knowledge and expertise through workshops and study visits.


5. What can the Premier League do in 2020 to build on a great 2019?

Our fans in China are hugely important to the Premier League and our clubs. We will continue to build on the work we are doing to find new ways to engage with them by evolving our content proposition, pushing the boundaries of innovation and creativity while offering fans the opportunity to win trips to the UK to experience live Premier League football. Supporting PP Sports and continuing to drive tune-in to their channels will be pivotal while the growth of short-form video platforms is particularly interesting and exciting for us. We are keen to explore this area to distribute premium quality content to as many new and established Premier League fans as possible, while we will deliver further enhancements and features within our mobile app for an optimal user experience.


Toni Claveria - Head of APAC at FC Barcelona


1. Congratulations on the Red Card win. How would you summarise the club's 2019 in China and what was the highlight?


Thank you; I’m delighted to accept the award on behalf of FC Barcelona. 2019 was a great year for the Club in China. Over 9 million people now follow us across all Chinese digital channels, an increase of nearly 60% year on year versus the end of 2018.


Followers across Weibo, WeChat and Toutiao all increased but most pleasing has been the reaction on Douyin. About a year ago, we launched our official Douyin channel aiming to build a bridge between FC Barcelona and Chinese Generation Z by creating entertaining content, and now we’re up to 2.4 million fans. I think that makes us the fastest growing amongst all sports clubs on the platform – but more importantly, we’re seeing great engagement from the fans with our content. Highlights have been launching the new Club website in China, creating a series of bespoke vlogs at key moments in the sporting and cultural calendar and our Chinese New Year content with first-team players.


2. Douyin has been a particularly strong engagement platform for the club. How have you approached and utilised Douyin?


You’re right – we’re not here just to amass followers. In general, a key objective of the Club is to increase engagement, creating content that is tailored for the Chinese audience and digital landscape. Pretty much everything about Douyin is unique so it demands its own dedicated content strategy. As Douyin is a short video sharing platform with a younger demographic, our followers are not necessarily seeking informative content or club news like they would on other channels. Instead, they want to be entertained so we focus on telling a good story for the more ‘casual’ fan – short, funny, impressive, entertaining content.

Furthermore, we are constantly thinking about how we utilise Douyin’s native tools; the effects, filter, formats… how we use user-generated content, how we engage and how we use analytics to further improve our performance.


3. Barcelona has a strong partnership with OPPO. How has this partnership developed, what have been the key learnings and what can we expect in 2020?


OPPO are an important partner for us and it goes beyond a traditional sports partnership. Our partnership began four years ago, and in that time, we have forged a close relationship based on shared values, goals and philosophy.

Everything we do with OPPO fundamentally talks to these shared values, whether that’s Juliano Belletti helping to launch the Limited-Edition FC Barcelona phone at the Camp Nou, creating branded digital content or delivering world-class training camps with Barça Academy coaches.


4. What were your biggest challenges of 2019 and how do you plan to overcome them in 2020?


Here in the Asia Pacific region, we’re about 10,000 kilometres away from Barcelona but we think that more than 37% of our global fanbase is here. So, the biggest challenge is how we engage with the fans out here in an authentic way, particularly given the time difference. Digital is our most effective platform to engage with fans, and particularly in this region where the amount of time spent on mobile devices is significant. The biggest challenge online is keeping up with the ever-changing digital landscape so we’re reliant on our agency partners and dedicated China digital team to stay abreast of the innovations.

However, we shouldn’t forget about offline experiences either. That’s partly why we created the first Barça museum outside of Catalonia in Haikou in late 2018. We recognise the need for physical experiences and assets in the market.


5. How is Barcelona supporting Chinese football at the grassroots level?

Well, we have been in the China market with the Barça Academy since 2010, we now have six across China and over 15,000 children have been trained across our programmes. Importantly, the technical directors of our Academies are firstly trained in Barcelona and live in China all year round, alongside the locally recruited coaches. We believe this is the best way to make sure the Barça methodology, values and style of play are communicated throughout the Academies. We also hold national and regional Cups where kids from different countries and backgrounds come together to compete. For instance, the Barça Academy Chengdu is heading to India at the end of January to compete in the APAC Cup alongside teams from 7 other countries.


Most importantly, we want to improve the player experience (locally and internationally), sharing knowledge through our coaching systems, building facilities adjusted to the sport and the athlete’s needs, like we have done at our Barça Academy Pro in Haikou. Those facilities are first and foremost for the Barça Academy but the China National team have trained there and CSL teams have trained there in the past. So, we believe that Chinese football can take advantage of our investments in the country.


6. What can we expect to see from the club online in 2020 in China?


As China has a fast-developing and ever-changing digital landscape, it’s imperative that we monitor and test new innovations in the market – whether that be new platforms, tools or content trends.


We’re fully committed to giving fans access to the very best Barça related content, optimised for the individual platforms and how fans consume their content. Football is at the core of what we do but on top of that, our content strategy is to produce entertaining content – whether you’re a hardcore football fan or just a casual fan. We’ll strive to deliver deeper storytelling about the Club in a way that is locally relevant.


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Headquartered in Shanghai, China, Mailman is a global sports digital consultancy and agency. We help the world’s leading sports organisations serve their audiences and build their businesses. With over 200 experts across the globe, we specialise in digital strategy, transformation, social media, content production, and eCommerce.Learn more about our story here

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