A study by Shanghai-based agency the Mailman Group, reviewing the top 14 European football clubs online in China, found that 57 per cent of these clubs have an official account on both Sina and Tencent Weibo.
According to the Deloitte Football Money League 2013, Europe’s top 20 football clubs generated more than US$6.3 billion in the 2011/2012 season. The revenue stems from broadcast deals, match days and commercial ventures, which include club merchandising and brand sponsorships.
“Manchester United is the dominant club in terms of engagement across the board, thanks to Chinese fan groups,” Mailman Group CEO Andrew Collins told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “As a result, the club has closed at least two commercial partnership deals in the past 12 months in China—with beverage maker Wahaha Group and China Construction Bank.”
Globally, the club has signed over 20 deals in the past two years, raking in over $30 million. Last year, it broke sponsorship records with a $70 million shirt sponsorship deal with General Motors.
“What’s fascinating is that players are driving the popularity and endorsements ahead of clubs," Collins said. "Players have been doing deals in China for years, for example, Christiano Ronaldo has signed sponsorship deals with local brands.”
Manchester United’s success may have inspired other clubs to focus on sponsorship deals, with Tottenham Hotspur currently looking for a global Chinese partner, he said.
Brands that sign on with the clubs will be gaining access to 15.6 million fans on social media in China, 30 per cent of whom are women. In terms of followers, the top clubs are Manchester City with 4.35 million fans on Chinese social media, Real Madrid with 2.1 million fans, and Chelsea with 2.1 million fans.
But high follower numbers are no measurement of actual popularity, cautioned the study. Manchester United, which only has 400,000 social media fans, has the highest engagement levels, drawing over 200 comments and forwards per post—despite not having an official social media presence. In stark contrast, Manchester City is ranked last in terms of engagement.
“Low engagement scores, as presented by Chelsea and Man City, might suggest the presence of the so-called fake fans, a known issue in Chinese social media management,” concluded the report. “Moreover, a large number of inactive accounts might create a illusion of ROI and of the authentic size of an online fan base.”
A more accurate measure could be the growth of user-generated fan pages. The study found that teams with the highest number of celebrity footballers, such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid were the most popular with fans, drawing pages that had over 10,000 followers and news feeds with over 100,000 followers.
The report found that 40 per cent of fans chose to follow a club because of a specific player and not the club’s history, while 26 per cent followed clubs that were performing well in the league.
According to Collins, these results comes at a time when the clubs aren’t even trying that hard. “Sixteen per cent aren’t even localising their content or even translating it into Mandarin and 15 per cent are only translating 50 per cent of their posts—they could achieve a lot more.”
For the clubs that do, there are Chinese giants with global reach, such as Lenovo, Huawei and Haier, that could potentially use the clubs as a bridge to connect, Collins said. “If I was an FMCG brand, I would be thinking of building on a male sporting audience. The clubs give any brand in China a cool factor that’s hard to buy and could shave years off a branding campaign.”