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Which European club will win in the battle for Chinese hearts?

By The Guardian, edited by Yutang Sports 31 Jul 2015

An early version of football is thought to have been popular in China in the second and third centuries and, after a long hiatus, the game is once again growing in popularity. With a population of 1.35bn people, making an impression there is becoming vital for European clubs seeking fans and their spending power.

Recently, the European heavyweights Bayern Munich, Internazionale and Real Madrid all toured to China, hoping to raise their profiles in what has the potential to be a massive market for foreign clubs. Bayern were greeted by a stadium full of enthusiastic fans as they beat Valencia in Beijing.

Football now ranks as one of the most popular spectator sports in China. Foreign clubs are proving a hit with the Chinese. China’s sheer size and burgeoning middle class with increasing spending power make it an attractive place to break into and Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, as well as Barcelona, have all played pre-season games there in recent years.

“China is attractive for its huge population, fast-growing economy and also passionate football fans,” says Vincent Chan, account manager for Mailman, a China-based sporting and consulting group. “Football is the most popular sport in China.”

Clubs are not just competing on the pitch in China, they are also competing to build an online presence throughout the year. Language has in the past proved a barrier for teams hoping to engage with fans in the country through their English-language websites, while internet restrictions have meant Chinese fans cannot follow their teams on western social media sites. This has been a big issue for teams and fans alike, according to Chan: “Without Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, fans are really frustrated that they cannot directly interact with the players.”

In response a growing number of European clubs have developed websites in Mandarin and produced content for their Chinese fans. After Liverpool launched an official presence on Chinese social media in 2011 there are now more than 30 clubs active on sites such as Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter. The level of interaction from club to club varies and Chan reckons Manchester United are the most successful while Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern have been making big inroads.

According to Mailman’s research, German football has gained popularity after the launch of an official Bundesliga Weibo account and Germany’s success at the World Cup. Borussia Dortmund, for example, gained more than a million new followers in under a year on social media. Mailman described Bayern as a “fan favourite”, underlined by the fervour generated by the German champions’ presence in China. Real Madrid are rated the most successful team online this year, topping Mailman’s Red Card table.

A team’s success in their own league also plays a key role. The relationship with winning and fan development is no more prevalent than in China, where many fans support multiple teams without the direct attachment to location or family upbringing. 

Bob Liang is a Shanghai-based Liverpool supporter, attracted to the club for “its stars such as Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Michael Owen, Luis Suárez, for its rich and successful history” and because “it is still the English club with most major trophies”. He says he is also drawn in by “the famous team song YNWA … for its spirit of never giving up and for its attacking playing style”.

Domestic sides are at last seeing their fanbase grow after years of having a poor reputation. Liang, for one, follows his local team, Shanghai Shenhua. The sport had been rocked by corruption scandals with officials being jailed for match-fixing and taking bribes, while the lacklustre national team also contributed to a lack of faith in the homegrown game. According to the state news agency Xinhua, football was seen as an “embarrassment to the nation”.

Yet the popularity and importance of domestic football is evolving. Earlier this year a government initiative was launched to improve football standards in China with plans to build tens of thousands of pitches and football training being introduced to 50,000 schools by 2025.

The fortunes of the national team are also on the up after reaching the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup in January. Chinese clubs with big budgets are snapping up high-profile foreign players, with Shanghai Shenhua recently spending £11.3m for the former Chelsea striker Demba Ba, while Guangzhou Evergrande spent £9.9m on the Brazilian midfielder Paulinho. He was joinedin the Chinese Super League last week by Robinho, who also signed for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side.

The lack of a quality domestic scene is not the only possible reason international clubs find such favour in China. Cameron Wilson, editor of Wild East Football – an English language website about Chinese football – cites the example of Japanese football, which has a well-established domestic scene but where foreign clubs are also hugely popular. Wilson believes it is more to do with the importance of image. “It’s similar to why Luis Vuitton and Gucci are successful in China, because they are seen as being something successful and desirable,” he says. “The big names in European football are also seen as being glamorous and successful. It’s a triumph of marketing over actual sporting substance.”

Foreign clubs are also seeking to increase their revenue from their growing Chinese fanbase, which is proving more difficult than gaining fans. Some are now selling merchandise through popular Chinese online marketplaces. Bayern, for example, announced in May they had partnered with the e-commerce giant Alibaba to open an online store on the popular marketplace. Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham likewise have stores on the site.

Chan says it takes time for clubs to turn a profit in China. “But as long as they stick to the Chinese market it is only a matter of time,” he said. Commercial partnerships with popular brands from the country can help forge links. “There has been some sponsorship from Chinese companies to foreign clubs such as Huawei, Wahaha and Wanda,” Chan adds.

However, while Premier League and European clubs are trying to steal a march on each other in China, Wilson believes many are still missing the mark. “I think they have had some success but they don’t always engage Chinese fans on the internet,” he says. “Many of the big teams are not in tune with China. I think they don’t know how to shape the message so they can make a bigger impact.”

The top ten clubs in terms of Weibo followers

Manchester United 13million

Manchester City 9.6m

Barcelona 7.6m

Arsenal 4.6m

Bayern Munich 4.4m

Real Madrid 4m

Chelsea 3.9m

Liverpool 3.3m

Tottenham 2.2m

Milan 2.1m

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