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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

Europe vs. Asia: Champions League in China

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

With the European football season having reached its yearly apex last weekend – the Champions League Final – it’s Asian counterpart is barely past its halfway point. Whereas the two Madrid sides fought it out in Milan to compete for UEFA’s top trophy on Saturday evening, the AFC’s flagship tournament has only just whittled down its challengers from 16 to 8. So with these two continental tournaments running for the most part independently of each other, how does the popularity of one competition compare to the other here in China?

Until recently, the official UEFA Champions League Weibo account boasted over 1 million more followers than the AFC edition – this despite the European version’s page having not been updated since October 2014. In fact, just this week the UEFA Champions League Weibo page underwent a major revamp, with all previous content deleted, and the page itself rebranded as the official Euro 2016 tournament page. Such an unprecedented move means that the competition’s previous 2.1 million followers are now without an official social channel by which to follow the tournament, handing its AFC equivalent the upper hand in online popularity.

If we take Weibo followership as a reliable yardstick for popularity, the European competition’s account’s nearly double the number of followers prior to its repurposing tells us much about the overall respective popularity of the two contests. A recent independent poll run by Netease confirms the European tournament’s superiority in this regard, with 64% of football fans choosing the UEFA Champions League as their favourite football tournament, reflecting the tournament’s status as the most popular team competition amongst Chinese fans.

Nonetheless, despite its dominance in popularity, there are still issues preventing the Champions League from entirely capitalising on its reputation, besides its recent removal from Weibo. The primary challenge faced by the European competition is undoubtedly the timing of UEFA Champions League kick offs, with the traditional 7.45pm (BST) kick off meaning a 3.45am start (or at best, 2.45am in summer) for those wishing to tune in on Beijing time. Meanwhile, the viewer-friendly Asian edition’s evening kick-offs mean that TV and online viewing figures (not to mention social mentions) are given an immediate head start. Just a quick glance at the comparative viewing figures on state broadcaster CCTV5 for the two most recent finals reveals that while the 2015 AFC Champions League Final second leg racked up an audience of 18.4 million; Saturday night’s European final gained just 4.9 million viewers.

Whereas the caveats of multiple broadcasting services and awkward kick off times can explain away a significant proportion of that divergence in viewing figures, we must also understand the culture and habits of Chinese football fans watching both variants of the tournament. Whilst the aforementioned late night kick off times may for some mean forgoing the live match viewing experience, for others it simply means a change of viewing habits.

With swathes of top European club supporters’ groups based in cities across the country, and unrestrictive licensing laws allowing venues to keep their doors open to those dedicated enough to make it out of bed so early in the morning, many fans of the European game are more inclined to watch together in public. Thanks to these anti-social kick off times, a communal viewing culture has been gradually engendered, whilst at the same time, the Asian Champions League’s early evening commencement means those wishing to tune in will often be forced to watch at home or even at work.

Another useful gauge of the two Champions League incarnations’ relative popularity can be found when examining the social mentions of each competition. By studying the amount of references to both ‘欧冠’ (European Champions League) and ‘亚冠’ (Asian Champions League) over a given period of time, it is possible to track the vast fluctuations in online popularity of the two events. Looking back to November 2015; the AFC Champions League Final first leg attracted 676,106 Weibo mentions, whilst in the same week, European Champions League mentions peaked at just 15,745 mentions. A fortnight later, the Final’s second leg clocked up another 232,033 mentions, whilst the European competition’s 5th round of fixtures mustered just 16,263.

While this huge disparity in numbers is to be expected when comparing a continental final to midweek (late night) group stage fixtures; when we reverse these circumstances and examine the European final in comparison to the Asian round of 16 in the week just passed, a striking reversal occurs. While the Asian tournament attracted 36,685 mentions (thanks in no small part to the last-minute heroics of both Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng), the UEFA Champions League Final drew in just 161,621 social mentions. Thus even the second leg of the Asian final – with over 400,000 less mentions than the first leg – accounted for 44% more Weibo mentions than the European final.

So what does all this mean for both respective continental competitions? For a start, the UEFA Champions League has a lot of catching up to do as far as its online presence is concerned. Given the awkward broadcasting times, and the difficulty in remedying this to appeal to the Asian market (calls from sponsors for earlier kick off times in recent years have routinely been given short shrift) the tournament should still be striving to reach and engage with a passionate and expanding Chinese fanbase through its social channels.

With almost double the number of followers than its AFC counterpart prior to its repurposing, the demand patently exists for an official UEFA Champions League Weibo account. As the accounts of Europe’s top three leagues – the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga – all regularly attract greater levels of engagement than both the domestic Chinese Super League and AFC Champions League accounts, it is fair to suggest that Chinese fans are far more inclined to engage with and discuss European football online than that which is closer to home.

Thus as things stand, thanks to the more social broadcasting times and accessibility to the tournament, the AFC Champions League will continue to outperform its European equivalent. Nevertheless, given the clamour for Europe’s top footballing competitions, it is evident that the UEFA Champions League must do more to cater for its Chinese fans. Considering the disparity in kick off times, as well as the relative attractions of each tournament, the two variants can comfortably coexist. However, it is imperative that the European competition regains its Weibo presence if it is to reaffirm its position as the most popular footballing tournament in China.

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