Soccer Wars: The Digital Battleground of China

soc warsChina has become a modern wild west in the world of football. With the government eyeing football as the next great Chinese success story, European clubs are looking to get in on the action. A recent study revealed a few interesting habits of the Chinese and their soccer preferences, compared to westerners.

Bayern Munich were surprisingly atop of the list of clubs with the highest digital presence. English clubs have an unprecedented amount of money, as £1bn was spent on transfer alone this season for the first time, but are falling behind rivals in the crucial digital landscape of the far east.

The Wild Wild East!

This excitement around the Chinese market has been borne of the investment and aspirations lead by the government. China has spent the last few years moving its focus from the Olympics to becoming a great soccer nation. President Xi Jingping has been the catalyst for this movement and in 2015 was even seen touring Manchester City, despite being a United fan. This was shortly followed by Chinese investment in the club valuing City at £1.7bn. Chinese investors have gone on to invest in other top European clubs such as RCD Espanyol and Atletico Madrid too.

The domestic league has seen huge investment, with players in their prime moving to a nation usually reserved for players looking for a hefty last contract. Ledman, a light bulb company, recently sponsored the Portuguese Second Division, and caused uproar when it was revealed that part of the deal was to include having mandatory Chinese players and coaches in the league. Because of these moves by China many expect them to bid for the 2026 World Cup.

These investments are vast in scale and football’s biggest clubs have been attracted like moths to a flame. A recent study by digital company Mailman has been looking closely and what has been happening on the digital side of soccer and how clubs are succeeding in gaining new fans and therefore more importantly revenue from the billion Chinese customers.

Mailman used 9 separate “performance metrics” to work out the media presence of European clubs in China. This covered Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter), We Chat, websites, online shops, online streaming and video on Youku which can be compared to YouTube. As opposed to looking at just solely the number of followers like an insecure reality TV star, Mailman were looking for engagement.

“Engagement is the most accurate measurement of popularity in China,” said the studies co-author David Hornby. “The size of your Weibo following is often in no way representative of how engaged your fans are – and that is what clubs are really interested in”. What this means is the comments, mentions, forwarding and likes of a specific team. If it was just done by just followers Manchester United would run out easy winners. Bayern Munich however came top of the Mailman scoring system and has evidently more traction in the minds of the Chinese than any other team. There was a crackdown in 2015 on fake Weibo accounts and many were deleted, this is believed to have a major effect on some of the bigger teams who were not leading the study.

So why is Bayern Munich so popular? The German Champions have been specifically targeting China while other team have lost focus. Bayern played 3 pre- season games in the country, while other went to America. The Bundesliga sold its TV rights to free-to-air channels to make the league’s exposure far greater than the exclusive TV deals of the Premiership and La Liga. This means that Munich were more in the public eye and their games allowed for discussions on social media. Bayern Munich of course are one of the biggest teams in the world and one of the favourites for the Champions League, but with the global clout of teams like Man UTD and Real Madrid it is baffling why the German team seem to be the only one pushing hard to gain the market.

Munich try to get their brand out there at the detriment to initial profits and clubs such as Barcelona have not capitalised. Neymar and Lionel Messi, two of the most famous footballers on the planet do not even have a Weibo account. Chinese fans are notorious for following individuals more passionately (and more with their wallet) than teams, so the clubs with the biggest players are missing a very simple marketing opportunity.

China is an incredibly lucrative market and with the sport of football becoming more corporate, with talk about revenue overshadowing actual pitch action, it would seem that business is taking over priorities for some clubs. Bayern Munich are leading the way for now, but it won’t be long till they are joined by others and China’s unique social media platforms make it an interesting frontier marketing battle.

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