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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

Touring the Middle Kingdom

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

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As China’s interest in global sports continues to grow, a mirror interest in the Chinese market has emerged among international teams and leagues hoping to tap into China’s sudden fascination with world sports. This is evident in the scale of social campaigns that European football clubs and leagues are undertaking, as well as some noteable other sport brands adopting a Weibo presence (the UFC and 8 NFL teams included). Added to that, many Western sports are launching even greater efforts to expand into China in the form of tours.

The NBA has the largest social presence in China among Western sports, with all 30 teams and over 70 players on Chinese social media platform Weibo (not including free agents, coaches, retired players, etc.). The NBA’s 30 million followers will have something to keep an eye on in October, and not just on social media, as former player and seven-time NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady will lead a team of former NBA stars to China. Playing friendly games on a 3-week tour in 11 cities across the country, this is one of many tours in the works that will help ramp-up the sport’s presence abroad.

But basketball, while the most popular sport in China, is not the only sport to be communicating an interest in China. Football has been among the fastest growing sports in China for many years now, beginning what could be a fast growing trend of clubs and leagues sending over retired legends to tour the country, essentially as goodwill ambassadors. This strategy has been implemented heavily by Tottenham Hotspur, who has repetitively seen the likes of Ledley King and other legends visit Beijing and Shanghai. Currently on the radar of the Bundesliga, China also recently saw DFL Legend Christoph Metzelder during a tour of Beijing, visiting a local school, appearing on media, as well as meeting and greeting the fans – a visit which propelled the Bundesliga close to the Chinese market.

Bundesliga’s China exploits didn’t begin there though, as an initial interest was signalled prior to the Legends Tour when German clubs SV Hamburger and Werder Bremen toured China, playing local Chinese Super League teams during the pre-season. It’s likely that their exploits won’t end there either, as touring China continues to grow into a more attainable and viable measure of achieving a more comprehensive global status.

These tours have a reciprocal effect, with foreign athletes’ interest in China driving the increased popularity of sport in general. This particularly resonates in tennis which, following the retirement of Li Na, will require a new talisman to propel popularity in the East. As such, the timing of the upcoming Chinese Tennis tournaments couldn’t be better, which this October will draw some of the sport’s biggest names, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. The competition will undoubtedly fuel their Chinese presence, which is already impressive if you consider that Djokovic alone has a combined (Tencent and Sina) Weibo following of over 4.45 million.

With all this activity in China coming from abroad, these sports have, and will continue to see massive boosts in popularity, at least among Chinese netizens. As sports markets expand their global footprints to include China, these tours build the kind of mutual awareness that can be expected to initiate more Western athletes joining Chinese teams and events, and vice-versa.

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