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  • Writer's pictureDenis Green

China Sports Business Weekly | 6th March

Welcome to the latest edition of the China Sports Business Weekly. This week, more clubs and organisations have continued to donate to China while CSL side Wuhan Zall F.C attended El Clásico as special guests. Also this week, swimmer Sun Yang received an eight-year ban, BVB cancelled its Asia summer tour, CSL side Tianjin Tianhai put up for sale for free, and Hisense partnered with the NRL.

We caught up with Sergi Torrents - Managing Director of LaLiga, Greater China, to talk about leveraging El Clásico on digital, the Wu Lei effect, working with iQIYI Sports, CSL & CFA partnerships, and welcoming Wuhan Zall F.C to Spain.

Top Industry News

1) Sun Yang Hit with Eight-Year Doping Ban The three-time Olympic swimming champion has been suspended from all competitions for eight years for a drug-testing violation, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled, keeping him out of the Tokyo Olympics this summer, or possibly winter. Read more on BBC (English) and Xinhua (Chinese)

Mailman Take: Following Yao Ming, Sun Yang is up there with China’s most popular current and retired athletes, boasting more than 30m followers on Weibo. The backlash online in China was palpable as tens of millions vented anger at the CAS, demanding a decision reversal. Hashtag reads relating to his ban received a huge 1.76b on Weibo, while Sun Yang himself was defensive in response, posting six times on Weibo denying accusations and confirming his plan to appeal. “This is unfair. I firmly believe in my innocence,” Sun told Xinhua. “I will definitely appeal to let more people know the truth.” He later deleted five of the six posts.

2) LaLiga Donates Supplies and Welcomes CSL Side Wuhan Zall F.C. to El Clásico

The Spanish league will donate five tonnes of disinfectant gel to Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. League officials also invited Chinese Super League (CSL) team to their headquarters and the El Clásico match-up last weekend. After the match, OTT platform PP Sports worked with Real Madrid to auction 16 jerseys with proceeds going to Wuhan. Read more on ESPN (English) and LaLiga (Chinese) Mailman Take: Wuhan Zall is still in Spain training and unable to return home. Till now, no club has offered to play against Wuhan, despite the club making it clear they’re in need of competitive games. The club that offers to play will certainly increase their reputation in China and win themselves a new set of fans. The El Clásico contest was heavily engaged on digital in China, with LaLiga benefiting from a 98% increase in average Weibo engagement - becoming the #1 European league online last week. And despite the 2am kick off in China, the match caught the attention of local media, generating 1,160 individual media stories hitting a reach of 148 million.

3) Borussia Dortmund Cancel Asia Tour Due to Covid-19 The Bundesliga side has a popular and growing fan base in China, recently winning the Red Card award for ‘Best Use of Fan Clubs’ in the country. Having previously announced an Asia-wide tour for the summer, the on-going Covid-19 has meant the club is unable to commit to a summer visit. Read more on ESPN (English) and Xinhua (Chinese) Mailman Take: We spoke with Borussia Dortmund’s General Manager and CMO Carsten Cramer, after the cancellation announcement, where he stated: “We’ll be back in China soon, I can confirm that. Safety for all is of optimal importance, therefore we’ve taken this decision to pull out of our Asia 2020 tour. Every time we visit China as a team, club, legends or executives we’re humbled by the warm reception and reaction we receive. China is a truly incredible country and one that loves its football. I’d like to take this opportunity to send our best wishes and support to the people of China and all those fighting on the front line.” Carsten was also in the Mailman office last September and discussed BVB’s overall strategy for China. You can watch that interview here. 4) CLS side Tianjin Tianhai Available For Free The Chinese Super League (CSL) club is available free after admitting a worrying state of financial troubles. Tianjin recently narrowly avoided relegation and financial issues mean they may not be able to participate in the delayed 2020 campaign. The club sold 13 players without making a single signing in recent months. Read more on SportBusiness (English) and Xinhua (Chinese) 5) Support Messages Helping Engagement in China International sports organisations continue to deliver strong messages of support for China, which has in turn seen huge engagement growth on digital. During the first month of the Covid-19, European football clubs saw a huge 79% growth in engagement on Weibo. Read more on Campaign Asia (English) 6) Hisense Australia Signs NRL Sponsorship The National Rugby League (NRL) signed a partnership with Chinese appliance and electronics manufacturer Hisense, running from 2020 to 2022. Hisense will serve as naming rights sponsor for the NRL’s Thursday Night broadcast, a major partner of the State of Origin matches in 2020 and 2021, and the inaugural official presenting partner of OTT platform NRL TV. Read more on SportsPro (English) and Ecosports (Chinese)

From The Top

Sergi Torrents, Managing Director of LaLiga, Greater China.

1. El Clásico helped with +98% average engagement on Weibo for LaLiga last week. What do you do around this game differently on digital in China to ensure you leverage and make the most of it?

ElClásico is one of the most-watched sport events worldwide and it naturally drives the attention of fans eager to consume content related to such an eventful match. We prepared campaigns around ElClasico on all social media platforms. On Weibo, we shared a series of key visuals and launched engaging activities like “Fans’ imitation of ElClasico players' celebration”. Moreover, we posted plenty of videos to serve as pre-game warmup.

To ensure more fan engagement, we encouraged them to predict the result of the game, and vote for their favorite players. We increased the volume of posts related to the game due to its importance and uniqueness. On other platforms such as Douyin, we launched a challenge consisting of users showing off their skills by doing headed keep-ups with a virtual LaLiga ball. A challenge that could be done in any location giving fans at home the ability to participate in a different way, this campaign alone has accumulated more than 80m visualizations.

2. LaLiga has offices all over the world. How independently do you work from these and where does China fit in with the overall global strategy?

Our internationalization strategy started in 2014 with offices in China and Dubai with a clear goal to grow outside Spain. Today, we have 11 offices and 46 delegations that allow us to both implement the global strategy of LaLiga while we can be quick to adapt it to the local needs.

As for China in particular, it is a strategic market for LaLiga. Over the last years, we have seen our media rights value grow steadily, reflecting the interest of the Chinese audience in our league, our numbers on social media are climbing and partners are eager to activate with us. Moreover, a strong media partner such as iQiyi Sports along with strategic cooperation agreements in place with CFA and CSL and an ongoing collaboration with government entities show our commitment to invest and build our brand in China.

3. Wu Lei has proven himself a worthy player on the pitch in Spain. Was his impact as big as you expected it to be, and what has the league done to ensure his brand continues to grow both professionally and commercially?

It was, Wu Lei quickly adapted to the pace of LaLiga as well as to his new lifestyle in Spain. He boosted the notoriety of its club and brought a whole new wave of superfans that we have worked on to convert them into not only fans of one player, but fans of the league though content centered in Wu Lei but with a broader appeal to introduce them to LaLiga and the culture surrounding it.

In terms of impact on audience, we have been growing sharply in China as we implemented a scheduling strategy a few years ago in which any country in the world can have LaLiga matches in its prime time on any given matchday. With Wu Lei, it further increased our audience in the country and to the best of our ability and when possible, we schedule RCD Espanyol games in a China-friendly time. I can share one figure with you: 8 of the most-watched matches last season were played by RCD Espanyol after the signing of Wu Lei.

4. LaLiga is the only European football league exclusive to iQIYI Sports. Does this work in your favour, and what are they doing outside the 90 minutes to help promote your product?

Our partnership with iQiyi Sports is an essential part of our strategy. They are uniquely positioned in the industry, both in sports and entertainment. They are experienced with working with foreign sports IPs and have the resources to market LaLiga to casual fans and general public which greatly help us to promote LaLiga not only as a sports product, but as entertainment content.

With iQiyi Sports, the merger between sports and purely entertainment content can be done almost organically to appeal to a broader audience while we keep our core audience engaged outside the matchday with interesting and diverse content. For instance, in this season, with iQiyi Sports we collaborated with actress Zhang Tian Ai on our Unboxing campaign and for Chinese New Year, we produced a series of New Year greetings with some of LaLiga stars and the leading actress of iPartment, a star show on iQiyi. Moreover, we are working together on the commercial front with deals such as the one we announced a few months ago with Nongfu Spring, and will further expand our collaboration with iQiyi Sports in this aspect.

5. LaLiga has partnerships with the CFA and CSL. What do these entail and how do the roadmaps look?

We have strategic agreements with both CFA and CSL, as football in China is growing and improving at the grassroots and professional level, we want to be there helping this transformation by offering our know-how and working closely with them in this process. With CFA we opened a permanent training base in Madrid where the U15 national team trained and competed for a year. In addition, the training base has hosted stages for other categories of the national team such as the U17 or Women’s U15.

The partnership with CSL is focused on the exchange of practices and knowledge as well as the joint promotion of our brands in and out of China under our common claim “Two Leagues, One Passion.” We will continue and explore new ways in which we can work together as both partnerships have proven to be very successful for all parts.

6. LaLiga recently invited Wuhan Zall to Spain and El Clásico. How was their reaction and how is the league making their life easier in Spain?

Wuhan Zall F.C arrived in Spain on January 28th and followed their plan to prepare for their pre-season in Andalucía. However, they found themselves unable to go back to China and as we learned that they would stay in Spain for some more time, we got in touch with the team and invited them to LaLiga and ElClásico. As football people, we know this is the most exciting match in our sport and wanted to show our support to them with this invitation. Their strength is admirable, and we are happy that we got to know them in person and that they enjoyed their experience with us.

7. During the coronavirus situation, what did the league do online to provide more content and entertainment to fans?

The coronavirus in China hit right at the beginning of Chinese New Year, which is already a period of time that we push a lot of content on our social media accounts. With the spread of the Covid-19, we wanted to express our support and affection to China both online with content and offline with material support. For instance, we donated 5 tons of disinfectant to hospitals in Wuhan and show support messages in our DBR and social media along with many of our clubs.

RCD Espanyol donated 450k masks and Real Madrid and FC Barcelona show their support on the pitch. Furthermore, through our network of club participants of LaLiga Project (LaLiga helps with the Chinese social media accounts of +20 clubs), we encourage them to create supportive videos. Our president also hoped to convey his care and attention to China via his video. Once released, we soon got recognition and appreciation from all our fans.


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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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