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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

European Football in China: Rise and Fall

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

In the second part of our European Football in China review, we look at the rise of the Bundesliga and the reasons why Serie A has fallen behind. Our online poll in partnership with Netease revealed that La Liga is the most popular 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.

Rise of the Bundesliga

Bundesliga was one of the earliest leagues broadcasted in China in the early 1990s and now three matches are available exclusively to CCTV-5 every week. Although many fans are able to watch games online, the relative ease of access to CCTV-5 has allowed the league to reach a huge audience.

Bundesliga’s popularity has continued to grow over the past few years because of top performances on the world’s largest football stages. Bundesliga has produced 40% of Champions League finalists between 2009 – 2014, becoming increasingly popular with fans following top football. However, it was Germany’s World Cup victory generated the greatest exposure to China’s football fans.

China has more fans watching German football than Germany’s population.

There were 35 million people watching the World Cup final live in Germany, yet there were more than 100 million Chinese people watching. China now has more fans watching German football than Germany has inhabitants. As the majority of the national team play in the Bundesliga, many new, young fans of the sport are choosing Bundesliga teams to follow.

Social media is the most powerful tool to connect with fans in China

Within six months of launching its Weibo account, the Bundesliga surpassed 1 million followers and was named the #1 league online in the Red Card 2015. Further facilitating Bundesliga exposure, is the online community between fans, clubs and the German national team, which has attracted more followers of the league.

Zhang Xizhe is flying China’s flag in Europe

Zhang Xizhe, Vfl Wolfsburg’s £595,000 signing from Beijing Guoan, is the only Chinese player in Europe’s top five leagues. There was an estimated 50 million viewers for his first press conference and the welcome hashtag reached over 190 million reads on Weibo. The Bundesliga has brought on more Chinese players than any other league and now Zhang Xizhe’s progress is being closely tracked by supporters at home giving added popularity to Bundesliga.

Serie A Setback

Serie A teams only received 5.3% of votes, and have failed to develop a strong connection with Chinese fans. Juventus have yet to launch a presence on Sina Weibo, meanwhile AC Milan has been inactive since late February. Serie A experienced early success in China in the 90s, but after a series of corruption scandals, financial restrictions and negative style of football, the league has now fallen behind their European rivals.

Serie A fans are typically older and have followed the sport for several years

Serie A was regarded as the #1 league in Europe in the 90s. Six of the ten Ballon d’Or winners came from Serie A while Italian clubs were involved in the final of the Champions League in every season except one from 1989 to 1998. During this time, Italian football had huge exposure in China as fans were easily able to watch regular fixtures on CCTV-5. The league was able to attract many fans who today are typically older and have followed the sport for several years.

However, the match-fixing scandal uncovered in 2006 had huge implications for Serie A’s popularity in China. Major clubs including Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina were all charged and found guilty of match fixing, teams that were central to the sport’s brand. Chinese fans, having experienced corruption in the CSL, lost all trust in Serie A and the clubs, and their relationship was broken.

Chinese fans are attracted by fast-paced and entertaining football, with a focus on scoring goals

Although the traditional Catenaccio style of football is seen less in Italian football, the Serie A clubs still place a strong focus on defence. This style of football brought Italy success in the 2006 World Cup, and it’s hard to argue against a team playing to its strengths. Yet, Chinese fans are attracted by fast-paced and entertaining football, with a focus on scoring goals.

Lack of commercial development means Serie A teams are falling behind

Match-day revenues in Serie A are far lower than the rest of Europe’s top leagues with teams playing in outdated stadiums that do not belong to the club. Chelsea make six times as much from match day revenues as AS Roma, despite having half the capacity. Meanwhile, both Milan teams struggle to fill even half of their own stadium. This has ultimately meant that they can no longer keep or attract the top players, a key factor for Chinese fans to follow their team.

European football has been an obsession in China since the early 1990s and has entertained hundreds of millions of fans. La Liga currently enjoys top spot amongst Chinese fans, but the Premier League will be following the latest TV deal. Meanwhile, Bundesliga has a huge opportunity to grow in this market with their young and active audience. CSL team’s will always provide tough competition as Chinese fans crave success with their local ‘heroes’, yet these fans will ultimately follow the European teams to see the biggest stars and the most entertaining matches.

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