Surekha Ragavan
Jun 26, 2019

Kobe Bryant is still the MVP in China, and other learnings from Sport Focus

Attendees at yesterday's event in Shanghai heard advice from the NFL, La Liga, PepsiCo, Mailman Group, and the Drone Racing League, among others.

Kobe Bryant is still the MVP in China, and other learnings from Sport Focus

Campaign Asia-Pacific's first-ever Sport Focus took place in Shanghai Tuesday, with agency leaders and marketers from sports brands (or "IPs", as they are often referred to in China, where "intellectual property" is applied to a wide range of properties from movies to cartoon characters to football leagues) gathering to discuss trends and opportunities in the region. Here are the key takeaways.

Prioritise the power of storytelling

In China, people tend to follow the player first and the team or sport second. This has led to sports leagues and brands creating content around players and telling their stories—oftentimes via videos.

“Branded content is becoming more important to the ecosystem as brands are looking for more video-based solutions,” said Stephanie Hsiao, marketing director for American-football league the NFL. “You’re seeing less of a [traditional] IP sponsorship with no more just a logo being slapped on. Brands want to be part of the creation process, and there are a lot more opportunities that come with that.

“The majority of [NFL] content comes from VOD or people watching on social. For us, content development and video strategy has always been foundational to our strategy in China. One of the challenges we face is that everyone in the sport is covered with a helmet. So we have to focus on what we call ‘helmet-off content’, and creating heroes and telling stories of who these players are off the field.”

Stephanie Hsiao

A case in point is a series of offbeat short-form videos created for Chinese fans starring NFL star Tom Brady where he’s seen conversing in Mandarin or playing ping-pong while answering China-related trivia. The series also encouraged other NFL players to market themselves more aggressively in China.

Conversion is not always easy with esports marketing

Esports and the rate it's grown in China could be viewed as a marketer’s dream, but it’s not always a bed of roses. According to Leo Guo, marketing director for PepsiCo China, “esports consumers are loyal, but it’s difficult for them to make changes if you don’t make the product available in front of them”. He said: “It’s difficult to convert them to be buyers. We have been working on different proposals to create a favourable ecosystem for the gamers, and to create a closed loop for them to make the final purchasing decision.”

However, he said that marketing to esports fans is not just about the product. Rather, brands must be immersed in the “spirit of the game”. He said: “When what we offer is value and belief, it’s easier for the consumers to buy in. We must fight for the honour or the dream or the belief.” It may sound idealistic, but he said that esports in China is booming and is an irreversible trend. And if marketers are not precise and targeted with their strategy, they risk being drowned out.

Leo Guo

Guo also had some advise for Tencent as an esports platform: “It’s not just about the service provided by the platforms, you must provide an ecosystem for the consumers. And [this way], the brands can take advantage of the different parts of that ecosystem; that’s the way you maximise the interest for all stakeholders.”

Don’t expect money to roll in overnight

Sports marketing is not something you will put money in today and get rewarded for tomorrow, said Bill Yang, commercial leader in Greater China for La Liga. Rather, signing onto an event is a long-term partnership. Because of this, it’s important the sports property that brands sign on with have the power to innovate for users and fans.

For instance, La Liga upgraded its AV tech and was the first to apply DVR tech. On top of that, it invested a lot of money to improve broadcasting tech, such as 360-degree replays and viewing angles. “All of these will increase the experience of fans and at the same time, it will also help our partners to have better visibility in our matches,” said Yang. “It’s very important for brands to work closely with their IP partners.”

Maybe it’s time to take drone racing seriously as a sport

Kellen Malstrom, head of China for Drone Racing League (DRL), said that the sport he represents started gathering followers about seven years ago, and grew digitally mainly via YouTube and message boards. One reason the sport has gained popularity so swiftly in China is that the market skipped over a lot of traditional, linear sports [this also explains the growth of esports in China] and its largely digital presence.

Kallen Malstrom

Brands too have taken an interest in the sport due to highly engaged fans and a niche audience of 15-25 year-olds—a typically tricky market to reach. “When you think about traditional sports broadcast and the way things have been done for 50 years, it’s been extremely buttoned-up, formal, and professional,” said Malstrom. “But what’s rewarded digitally is authenticity. What works online is that people will watch a feed for four hours, just hanging out with fans and talking about the game.” Some brands that have struck partnerships with DRL include Swatch and Amazon Prime Video, and this list could expand rapidly in the next few years.

Direct engagement with fans brings results

China utilises social media like no other market, and marketers chimed in on using various platforms to connect directly with fans. For instance, NFL signed on an exclusive broadcast deal with Tencent three years ago, and the platform now serves as a home for NFL fans in China. “A turning point for us was leveraging social media and directly engaging with fans, allowing them to let us know what we’re doing right—and they certainly let us know what we’re doing wrong,” said Hsiao.

Another instance is the popularity of Kobe Bryant in China [see below]. One reason he’s perceived as something of a demigod in the market is his direct connection with Chinese fans via social media.

“Kobe Bryant used to do TVCs but now with social media, he has daily conversations with his fans,” said Cate Zhou, senior director of strategy at Mailman Group. One way he does this is via a series called ‘Hello Kobe’ where fans ask questions and he serves as a life coach. Through the series, brands have also signed on to integrate with the content.

Chinese fans are still obsessed with Kobe

Despite retiring from basketball three years ago, American Kobe Bryant is the centre of fan mania that has rippled through China in the last decade. He has consistently ranked first in terms of shirt sales in China, and his post-retirement #KB20 hashtag scored over a billion reads on Weibo. He is also currently the most followed international athlete on Weibo.

Zhou, who manages Bryant in China and is a self-admitted Bryant evangelist herself, said that the reason Chinese fans resonate so deeply with Bryant’s persona and brand is his ability to “rise above his difficulties”, a quality that they aspire to. “His work ethic and Mamba mentality goes beyond the court. A lot of fans here, in fact, first know Kobe as an athlete before even following the sport,” said Zhou. He may not be active on the court anymore, but in China, Bryant is both the MVP (most valuable player) and the GOAT (greatest of all time).

Cate Zhou


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