In January, English football giants Manchester United announced a series of ‘entertainment and experience centres’ in China by the end of 2020. Yesterday, the new experience centre – in partnership with Chinese property developer Harves – was previewed in Beijing, and club legends Peter Schmeichel, Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown were flown in to officiate.
The centre, which will be fully open in 2020, is located next to Tiananmen Square and experiences currently on preview include a full-scale replica of Old Trafford’s Trinity Statue, an interactive showcase of the club’s wins, replicas of the players’ tunnel and changing rooms, and the first official Manchester United megastore in China. More centres are slated to open in Shanghai and Shenyang.
While highly anticipated, the preview period for the centre hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Last month, fans noticed that the club crest produced on the front of the building was "facing the wrong way". One fan took to Reddit to note that the mistake was deliberate: “Facing right brings good luck in China, I am sure our PR team has done its research.”
Alongside the centre, a Chinese-language app was launched, the first time a Premier League club has debuted a dedicated Chinese-language app. The app will give fans access to exclusive videos and don't be surprised if you see a few personalised Chinese-language greetings thrown in as well.
A (short) legacy in China
Unlike Europe, the following of the club in China doesn't have a long history but the fact that many brand and media partnerships have been struck there recently demonstrates that Manchester United is taking its China following seriously.
One that set a precedent was a 2016 deal between the club and Sina Sports, a major digital entertainment platform in China. As part of the deal, Sina Sports secured exclusive rights to the club’s 24-hour MUTV channel and were licensed to publish club content across their site and apps.
In April last year, the club partnered with Chinese banking group PingAn Bank where fans of the club had access to a range of Manchester United-branded financial services products, starting with the Manchester United credit card.
Overall, the club has had significant support in China with over 100mil fans at the moment. In 2018, it was also the most followed sports team on Weibo with 9.3mil followers (twice the number of Arsenal and Chelsea followers combined).
According to Mailman Group’s Red Card 2019 report, the Premier League is China’s biggest football league and Manchester United has the third biggest digital following there after Real Madrid and FC Bayern Munich. The report said that all three clubs combined represent almost 50% of total WeChat reads, the most common platform for fans. Meanwhile, the top 10 clubs, including Juventus, Barcelona and Liverpool, are responsible for over 50% of total fan growth on Weibo.
However, the structure of football fan-ship in China is different from Europe where fans are more likely to be loyal supporters of one club. According to a report by brand analysts Brand Finance, brands are able to commercially benefit from a wider pool of people because Chinese fans “often follow four or five different teams”.