Interest in football in China has increased by more than 4% in the last three years, growth which is being driven by strategies developed at national government level and investment in sports properties around the world, a report from Nielsen Sports shows.
It is not just the interest in football among the Chinese urban population (31%) which is showing signs of steady growth. Internationally, Chinese investment in football is beginning to play a huge role in the changing economic landscape of the sport, where a very different market entry strategy is unfolding.
Brands looking to use sport as a catalyst for growth are concentrating less on sponsorship, traditionally used as a means to grow brand awareness and a market foothold, and more on the creation and purchasing of assets and content such as broadcast deals, agencies, players and teams.
Glenn Lovett, Global President of Strategy, Nielsen Sports, said: “The world is looking to China and China, increasingly, is looking to the world. Led by strategies developed at a national government level, Chinese companies and individuals are making their mark on global sport like never before. Football, as the world’s most popular and visible sport, has proved magnetic in its attraction: the list of clubs and agencies under Chinese control has grown substantially over the past two years, while at the same time the domestic Chinese Super League has risen in prominence, with fresh investment fuelling a number of eye-catching transfers from more established domestic leagues.”
When Dutch side, FC Den Haag was the bought by Vansen International Sports Company in 2014, it was the first and only professional football club in Europe to be owned in part or in full by a Chinese company. Since then, just two seasons later, that number has ballooned to 13, including some of the world’s biggest teams such as AC Milan, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid and City Football Group, the parent company of Manchester City FC.
The growing interest from China is also something clubs internationally are increasingly buying into as major European football clubs continue to build strategies to increase fan acquisition and retention in the market, from local media partners to distribute club content to regional or market-specific category sponsorships.
With 127 million fans, Real Madrid is the most followed European team in China. It’s partnership with domestic side, Guangzhou Evergrande, a club which in 2015 had an outlay on international transfers twice that of any other club in the Chinese Super League in 2015, was cemented when the two clubs announced the development of a 50-pitch training academy in the country - an initiative which goes some way to achieving the Chinese government's goal of having one pitch for every 10,000 people by 2030. Inter Milan and AC Milan, both of which are majority or fully owned by Chinese firms, are the second and third most followed clubs, both with 106 million Chinese-based fans.
As clubs look to engage, they will have to consider a very different fan base. Research shows that fandom in China works very differently compared to other international markets. Among Chinese fans, there is a significant degree of overlap in club following: for example, of those Manchester City FC fans based in China, 95% also support Manchester United FC, 71% Liverpool FC, 68% Chelsea FC and 64% Arsenal FC.
Using Nielsen Sports’ Fan DNA research program which segments fans based on how and why sponsorship changes their behaviour, the largest category of football fans in China are ‘Connection Fans’, where the social aspects of football drive engagement. In China, 32% of football fans are ‘Connection Fans’ meaning most fans see football as a platform that brings people together. This group responds positively to sponsorship, particularly when messaging and communications are tailored around their drivers of engagement.
These insights suggest that to increase followership in China, creating engaging content that brings fans closer to the game and to one another, is key.