European Football in China: Digital Dog Fight
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
China’s super fans invest more time, money, and emotion
European football is more than a game in China, it’s an obsession. Europe’s top four leagues have turned Chinese fans with no inherent connection to a club, into ‘super fans’ that are willing to invest more time, money, and emotion than their European counterparts.
Chinese fans’ appetite for the European game has grown dramatically in the last 10 years due for a few reasons, predominantly the technological development of broadcasting and digital media in China. Currently, there are around 70 million followers for the 30+ active European football teams on Chinese social media, with all of China’s top television networks vying for their share in broadcast rights.
Being in the Chinese digital arena when it comes to professional sports has allowed us to gain a high degree of visibility and resultant insight into what is actually taking place in this market. Recently, we ran an online poll in partnership with Netease, China’s number one sports portal, revealing that La Liga is the most popular European league in China. La Liga received 45.5% of the votes, ahead of the Premier League with 35.7%, Bundesliga with 13.5% and Serie A with 5.3% of the votes. In cross analyzing the findings of the study along with our experience in the industry, we deduced the most probable reasons behind the success of La Liga and the Premier League.
Ronaldo and Messi have more followers than Man Utd, Real Madrid and Barcelona combined
Spain received almost half of all the votes from the Netease poll, putting an end to the belief that the Premier League was the most popular in China. This can be attributed to four core reasons: star players, success at the right time, el Clásico, and the recent increase in commercial activity.
40% of fans follow a team because of their star players, a massive driving factor to the popularity of a league. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have over 31 million followers on Chinese social media, more than Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona combined. When they’re supported by the rest of the best players from across the world, it’s clear to see the effect that the calibre of players can have on the league. Ronaldo and Messi’s personal battle to be the best player in the world, where they have shared the World Player of the Year award for the last seven seasons, has brought La Liga far further into China’s limelight.
La Liga’s Champions League dominance coincides with China’s social media boom
La Liga teams experienced a golden period between 2009 – 2014, with nine semi-finalists in the Champions League over this period, compared to only three from the Premier League. This era of success coincides with the boom of Chinese social media, a period where Chinese fans could for the first time openly discuss, follow, and engage with their favorite clubs. The Champions League is highly regarded by the Chinese fans, meaning that La Liga’s club’s success in the tournament during this period converted many fans to follow these teams on these new online platforms.
El Clásico, one of the world’s most viewed sports events with an estimated 400-500 million viewers worldwide, has become a must-watch in Chinese fans’ social calendar despite fans often having to stay up well into the early hours of the morning. No other top European rivalry can boast the same level of major honours, whilst the intensity shown in this fixture has deep roots in the Spanish vs. Catalan conflict. The passion on and off the field has driven exposure of La Liga, demonstrated by Real Madrid and Barcelona finishing in the top two of this year’s Red Card.
La Liga is still behind the Premier League in its Chinese commercial activity, but the gap is slowly closing with many recent investments. La Liga currently has four major commercial and sponsor deals with Chinese companies, including Huawei and CCTV. Meanwhile, Wanda Group paid £34 million for a 20% share in Atletico Madrid, the first time a Chinese company has invested in a top tier European football club. These commercial deals increase exposure and help to create a connection with Chinese fans and the league. In addition, given their extremely patriotic nature, Chinese fans responded positively to Chinese organisations now investing in elite European clubs. La Liga recognises a strong partnership with China is key to future development and plans to build on this to improve its relationship with Chinese fans.
Premier League Passion
The Premier League received just over a third of all votes, but is well represented on Chinese social media, with nine teams and the Premier League official account. The Premier League’s popularity is driven by its competitive nature, the Beckham phenomenon, it’s history, and the common language.
Chinese fans are infected by the entertainment of the Premier League
The Premier League’s core strength is in fact the strength of the league. There are at least six teams that are all able to compete at the highest level in domestic and European competition, while all other teams would dismiss the title of an underdog. Twelve Premier League teams made the Champions League semifinals between 2004 and 2009, while there was a English finalist in seven of the eight years from 2005 to 2013. Success on Europe’s greatest stage, coupled with the fast pace tempo of the league meant that many Chinese fans were captivated by the entertainment and success of the Premier League clubs.
David Beckham’s second full season at Manchester United fell around the same time that the Premier League was first being broadcasted live on Guangdong TV, Chinese fans’ first chance to watch the Premier League after CCTV 5 had previously refused to pay. His rise to fame in China and throughout Asia put the Premier League on the map, and began a new period of dominance and commercial opportunities for the league. David Beckham has since played in La Liga, Serie A, MLS and Ligue 1, and has held an ambassadorial role for the Chinese Super League, but it was his time in the Premier League that had the greatest influence on Chinese fans.
England is the birthplace of football, the Premier League is it’s home
If England is the birthplace of football, then the Premier League is now it’s home. The FA celebrated it’s 150th anniversary in 2013, and is the oldest football organisation. Although, the Premier League was only formed in 1992 as the elite league for English football, Chinese fans respect and value the history of the league, its clubs, traditions, and even the stadiums. The charm of the Premier League is an undeniable reason for its popularity in China.
Chinese are now learning English in their early youth, and it’s now an important part of their educational progress. Before China’s social media ‘revolution’, many fans would have to read their news from international media networks, typically in English. Even now with the huge technology growth in China, major Chinese media will translate English content from their Western counterparts, with a large proportion of these focused around the Premier League. The growing inclusion of English in Chinese culture is a good predictor for the Premier League surpassing the popularity of La Liga.
Check out part two for the rise of the Bundesliga and how Serie A has fallen behind…