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  • Writer's pictureDenis Green

European Football Clubs on Tour: Next Stop, China

For several years, Europe’s top teams have flocked to Asia for pre-season tours. While the region might be a popular destination for holiday goers, these tours are anything but a holiday for clubs. They mean business. 

One of the biggest attractions to the region is China, a country that has made no secret of its desire to become a global football superpower. It was only a World Cup cycle ago that President Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, pledged to invest heavily in football, calling for the building of thousands of new fields and vastly expanding the number of school programs. 

My biggest hope for Chinese soccer is that its teams become the world’s best,” said Xi in 2015, who has had a lifelong passion for football and wants the national team to be competing at the top by 2050.

As we gear towards the 2019/20 season, it’s hardly surprising that many of Europe’s elite are chasing the opportunity there; whether that’s attracting new local sponsors, satisfying existing ones or pursuing the holy grail of “converting that 1% of the Chinese audience”... a phrase we hear all too often at industry events. 

So how can clubs capitalise while they are on tour in the region? What are the challenges they face? What are the opportunities? And how can digital help? Together, Seven League and Mailman have developed unique insights into how to drive success in the region, and we’ve looked to answer these questions. As ever, we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments over the next couple of months to see who has been capitalising on the opportunity.

Why is digital important for these tours and how can clubs use content to capitalise? Several factors combine to make digital a core component of any tour to this region:

Reach: Coming to China is an incredible opportunity to create unforgettable experiences for the fans you meet, but that may be limited to one or two cities over just 3 days. With national and regional interest in your arrival, digital permits reach and an opportunity to amplify your brand in the right timezone. In a country where there are over 1 billion social media users, it’s an opportunity that simply can’t be missed.

Retention: This is possibly the only opportunity clubs will get all year to truly resonate with Chinese and Asian fans; the other 360 days of the year are built around localising and producing content from Europe for Asia. Consider this your one chance to re-engage local fans and build a deeper more meaningful relationship with them. Show them you care.

Revenue: Digital is a necessity for 1 & 2. Those are the reason local brands and sponsors partner with these clubs. In the short-term, being online and active during tour will likely be part of contractual obligations, but thinking strategically, if the club can demonstrate its ability to grow and engage fanbases in Asia, further investment in the club is likely further down the line. That said, monetising fans directly isn’t any easier in China as it is elsewhere in the world. The football ecommerce market is underserved and misunderstood, whilst the global membership model does not apply to Chinese fans. But as the market matures, it’s a safe bet to say digital would be key to any D2C fan monetisation.

What are the common pitfalls and where do clubs often go wrong? The biggest mistake we see clubs make is planning the tour from a Western mindset. It has to be done China first, for the fans first.

Over the last few years, the most successful tours have been when the club focuses on the little things for China, for example, turning up at the general airport exit to meet fans, or walking around the pitch to celebrate with those who paid to turn up.

Emotion is one of the strongest motivators online in China, so it’s extremely important that the club is set up on the ground to capture these moments and share stories across the relevant digital platforms.

What are the cultural nuances clubs should be aware of? Your coverage in China needs to strike a careful balance between cultural & local sensitivity and the lighthearted tone of voice that often brings success on social media. Pushing the boundaries too far at one end can upset your core fan base and the wider sports community, whilst maintaining an overly official voice is unlikely to generate the kind of impact your tour deserves.

A big challenge is keeping the players positive and relaxed during tour. China can be a challenging destination for a preseason tour, so it's important to prepare the players adequately and making sure that the players don't cause damage to the club brand. 

In today’s climate of players having a direct-to-fan relationship, clubs need to educate and trust their players not to make the kind of gaffes that might cause long-standing damage. 

How important are star players now? Extremely important. This is why a large proportion of the fans will turn up to watch the match, wait for hours outside the hotel and queue in their droves to buy the tour jerseys.

It's the most powerful motivation to support a team in China and one that needs to be leveraged instead of feared.

But that presents its own challenges. Getting your star players there in the first place can be a battle, particularly after a grueling season that followed World Cup 2018 and an end of season that has included an African Cup of Nations, a Copa America and the final of the European Nations League. 

We’ve long documented the rise of athletes as media (as highlighted in Seven League’s 7 Trends in Digital Sport report for 2019) and clubs will need to facilitate rather than resent this trend if they are to reach their full potential in China. Players need to be motivated and demonstrate a passion for the market. But we all know this can’t be forced, fans can be quick to see through it. 

What hot trends can they leverage this year? Football tour content has almost been done to death, so creativity is going to what makes the tour standout on digital. Put simply, those that push the boundaries furthest will have the most success.

Crossovers work well, whether this is with other football or sports IP, or collaborative partnerships with major media outlets, China is a great environment for testing new ideas. There are still so many ‘firsts’ to be had in China and unlike other Western markets, clubs can get away with experimenting with activations that they’d rarely consider back in their domestic market. 

But in order to do this, clubs need to have a strong year-round local presence. They need to invest in building those local relationships. Unlocking these innovative activations requires time, local understanding and above all local expertise.  

The tour also offers a great opportunity for clubs to launch on new platforms. For those not already on Douyin, this is a great chance to publish viral 15-second video content around the team experience, meanwhile, a Mini-Program on WeChat can provide the platform to host all tour related information and interactive features. 

As mentioned already, ecommerce has so far been underserved in China, but the tour provides fans a tangible experience and drives higher purchase behaviour around bespoke Chinese products at lower costs.

How longstanding are the results and how can clubs measure results? We’ve already documented that tours can visit 2-3 cities in as many days. Without smart planning and execution, there’s a real risk that the results last just as long.

Clubs should be focused on creating a lasting legacy rather than simply dipping a toe in the water. Coming on tour, setting up a new Douyin account and then lying low for the rest of the season is not a winning strategy. 

The usual social metrics will judge the success of the tour, but we believe it's the stories that you can tell that are just as important. 

Which fans dream did you make come true? How many signatures did your players sign for the fans waiting outside? Which player gave their jersey to a young fan that will then follow the club for the rest of their life? For us, creating and sharing these stories is crucial. 

Clearly, the key metrics by which you define success will vary from club to club and these will need to be tailored to the relevant platforms. Indeed Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Douyin, and WeChat all have varying levels of analytics sophistication that vastly differ from the granular analytics capabilities of Facebook and Twitter, so you’ll want to be clear from the outset on what you want to achieve from your tour, which platforms are relevant and then ensure you are monitoring performance. 

If your club is already set up with revenue driven initiatives (digital membership, ecommerce) then Tour is the optimal time to focus on these. 

And if you’re looking at benchmarking yourselves against other teams visiting the region, Mailman’s proprietary social management software KAWO enables clubs to do just that, allowing comparison of social performance with other football and sports brands and against their own performance in previous years.

How important is contingency planning? Sport often throws up the unexpected - last season’s Champions League was no better demonstration of that.

While tours are becoming increasingly important activities for teams looking to grow their brand in new territories and drive yet more commercial value from their assets, they come with the very real risk of postponement and cancellation no matter how big the opportunity or how much time and effort has been put into it from marketing and digital functions.

This year we’ve seen Bayern Munich have to postpone their fixture against the Chinese national team, Man Utd’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur in Shanghai was at risk due to Europa League qualifiers and the Europa League qualifiers hit China again when Espanyol, featuring national superstar Wu Lei, had to pull out due to the club’s quest for European football. 

For digital, marketing and commercial teams you need to be aware of all possible eventualities and forward planning can help mitigate the damage. Indeed how you communicate with fans and deal with the inevitable fan disappointment will impact on your brand for years to come. Transparency and humility in China are key. 

Manchester City were the real winners of the infamous Manchester Derby at the Birds Nest in 2017 that never happened after they invited fans who had purchased tickets to the game for the Premier League fixture at the Etihad Stadium that season. 

Not every club can afford to do that, but smaller gestures of goodwill don’t go unnoticed. 

So as tour season begins, it will be fascinating to see how European teams fare in their quest for growth in China. Naturally, Mailman and Seven League will be closely monitoring the performance of those teams, documenting the success stories and supporting our own clients in the region.   

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