Staff Reporters
Mar 31, 2015

How the Super Bowl topped Weibo's trending topics

Andrew Collins, group CEO of China-based social media firm Mailman, explores the NFL’s social media strategy, which delivered a Super Bowl frenzy to China.

A screen capture shows #SuperBowl49 at the top of Sina Weibo's trending topics list (see larger version below)
A screen capture shows #SuperBowl49 at the top of Sina Weibo's trending topics list (see larger version below)

To millions of people in the US, Super Bowl Sunday is part of the American fabric. But the NFL has invested significantly over the past 10 years through a number of channels to help ignite the same enthusiasm, embrace of American culture and desire to participate in China. The results have been positive, but had not yet made a truly national splash. 

However, this year was different. The NFL launched more than eight team feeds independently across Weibo, garnering over 1 million new followers. And the #SuperBowl49 hashtag topped Sina’s trending topics list with a whopping 130 million views. It was the NFL’s coming out party.

To put that into perspective, #SuperBowl49 was the single largest annual foreign sporting event in the history of Weibo. By comparison, the Champions League Cup, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) annual championship competition, was a close second, topping out at 127 million views. The several-weeks-long NBA Finals from the US have always maintained a dominant position in China via Weibo. With Sina’s support and an extended event series, it’s hard to beat last year’s 380 million views of the #NBAFinals hashtag.

So what worked for the NFL? It’s a complicated question and the answer explores offline activities, a branded truck, participation through a domestic league and an explosion of social-media coverage.

Fan-focused digital strategy

NFL China launched two major social-media campaigns across Sina Weibo, encouraging Chinese fans to watch the Super Bowl live—even though it aired at 7 am on 2 February (a Monday), Beijing Time.

  • The week prior to the Super Bowl, the NFL launched its “Show your colors” campaign, putting the attention on local fans. Fans sent in photos of themselves in an NFL or local football team’s colors from all over China, using the hashtag #给点ColorCC#. The various submissions showed the growing fandom surrounding American football and the NFL in China.
  • The second part of the Super Bowl campaign focused on engaging with fans online during the game. During each quarter of the game, the NFL Weibo account released a new time-sensitive question about the game, encouraging fans to comment with their answers. The questions were easy enough that new football fans would be able to participate but everyone had to watch the game to see if their answer was right. Questions included team trivia and predictions for the game, as well as the color of Gatorade the winning team would dump on their coach.
  • China’s most influential sport and American-travel KOLs were engaged to ignite the promotions. Eye-catching Sina Weibo ads were also used to target fans of the NBA, Premier League, and other popular sports to engage an already sport-friendly audience.
  • To compliment the fan direct campaigns, the main accounts and supporting team accounts were littered with rich social media including popular GIFS, infographics, polls, and content sharing.

NFL offline

The view towards digital was to create an online culture of NFL football, one that fans can engage, share and join a community of like minded NFL fans. This was supported by a higher touchpoint as the league hit the ground across China with a branded truck, NFL Home Field experience and continuing the successful flag football league with local universities.

  • The NFL on Tour truck ventured more than 25,000 kilometers, making 19 stops in nine cities over three months
  • The NFL China University Flag Football League is now in its sixth year
  • NFL Home Field continued for the second year, visiting three cities over 10 weekends.

Technology's role

The NFL was able to broadcast live tweets throughout the entire season across team accounts in China using Mailman’s KAWO platform, which pulls foreign social media feeds form Facebook, Twitter or Instagram into China, localizing it and publishing it to Sina Weibo.                             


Over the course of the campaign, NFL China achieved:

  • The number one trending topic on Sina Weibo with over 130 million impressions on #SuperBowl49.
  • Over 600 participants in the NFL’s fan photo contest, totaling over 2.3 million impressions.
  • 1,300 fan comments during the game, resulting in 1 million reads.
  • 50 per cent annual account growth in one weekend as the NFL’s Weibo account surpassed 400,000 followers.
  • The NFL on Tour truck reached over 746,500 people with an estimated ad value of more than RMB 1.6 million (about US$260,000).
  • NFL China University Flag Football League had 36 teams with more than 1,200 players and drew 179,000 viewers to watch the games on SMG’s G-Sports. (Flag football is a version of the game that replaces violent tackling with grabbing a velcro-attached ribbon from the opposing player.)
  • Over 110,000 attendance traffic at NFL Home Field, media reach of over 500 million (55,363 registered visitors, 71 per cent were unique visitors).

Background Weibo Comparison:

  • #WorldCup#: 17.3 billion impressions
  • #NBAFinals#: 380 million impressions (same hashtag each year)
  • #AsiaCup2015#: 330 million impressions
  • #SuperBowl49#: 130 million impressions
  • #EuropeChampsFinal#: 127 million impressions
  • #CBAFInal# 44 million impressions

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