Julienna Law
Dec 14, 2022

Vivo, Wanda and other Chinese brands score big at FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

To make the most of this heightened interest, Chinese social media platforms are doubling down on their World Cup content.

Mengniu Dairy opens a booth at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 to promote its products and traditional Chinese culture. Photo: Mengniu Dairy
Mengniu Dairy opens a booth at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 to promote its products and traditional Chinese culture. Photo: Mengniu Dairy

Chinese soccer fans may not have a team to root for, but they are just as invested in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 as anyone else. With the games in full swing, running from November 20 to December 18, domestic viewers have expressed their excitement in all sorts of ways: purchasing commemorative soccer balls, dressing in “bloke core,” and even making dumpling art of Qatar’s keffiyeh-inspired mascot.

“It’s about the emotional roller coaster and the ever-lasting uncertainty. You never know which team can win,” says 25-year-old Li Wenhan, who has been staying up late to watch almost every match despite the five-hour time difference between Beijing and Doha. 

Xiaohongshu users celebrate the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 by dressing in soccer gear and creating dumpling versions its mascot. Photo: Xiaohongshu

Given the scale of the quadrennial competition, this fervent reception is unsurprising. According to a survey by Altman Solon, sports fans in China have an “outsized enthusiasm” for watching the World Cup — 64 percent of sports viewers say they are interested in this year’s event — despite having a lower interest in the sport itself. Whether their team participates or not makes little difference; in fact, China’s national team has only played in the World Cup once, back in 2002, and recently dropped to No. 79 in FIFA’s world rankings.

However, soccer could soon gain ground there. In 2021, President Xi Jinping, a soccer fan himself, announced that he wants to turn the country into a soccer powerhouse. The plan is to build new youth training centers, encourage major cities to set up professional clubs, and develop at least one soccer pitch per 10,000 people by 2025. With this policy support, he wants China to host and win a World Cup before 2050.

Given the nation’s World Cup enthusiasm and lofty sports ambitions, domestic brands have wasted no time capturing this key cultural moment. Here’s a closer look at China’s love for soccer and how businesses are benefiting. 

Chinese consumers splurge on merch and memorabilia

Soccer is now one of the most closely followed sports in China, explains Zoey Zhong, a cultural and market researcher at Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding. “Over the past decade, the Chinese Super League, the nation’s leading professional soccer association, has swelled to attract the highest annual live attendance for sporting competitions in the country, as the league recorded a total of 5.8 million fans throughout the 2019 season,” she says. 

And these fans have proven they’re willing to invest more than just their time into games. According to JD.com, the sales of various national team jerseys tripled year-over-year in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup while sales of projectors and VR glasses skyrocketed 240 percent and 430 percent year-over-year, respectively, on the first day. Hotel room bookings similarly jumped as young people searched for the perfect spot to enjoy the opening ceremony.

Li, who works as a reporter at Beijing Review, purchased a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey after following the athlete for over a decade. “I can remember almost every club and national team goal of his, every time he saved the team to a final win…I just asked my friend to buy one of these shirts from Spain and mail it to me.” 

Wang Dong, a 27-year-old based in Hebei province, bought commemorative balls for 2006 and 2018. “2006 marks the first World Cup I watched,” he says. “Though I bought it for its design back in 2006, now it seems to be a prompt for me to reminisce about the past days.”

But while soccer’s popularity is indeed on the rise,  Zhong notes that “about half of the World Cup audience in China watch matches and follow news only during such big events, and they are more interested in one or two international superstars.” This aligns with Wang’s observation: “Playing football is not as popular as watching it in China. We need more pitches and systematic training programs here.”

Tech platforms offer exclusive content 

Still, to make the most of this heightened interest, Chinese social media platforms are doubling down on their World Cup content. In November, Xiaohongshu announced its agreement with the national soccer teams of Belgium and Spain as their exclusive interactive content community partners in China. During the games, Xiaohongshu will share team highlights and behind-the-scenes footage, and invite several football experts to chat with users through livestreams. 

In recent years, the French and Argentine national soccer teams, along with clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona, have also joined the app — “demonstrating the relevance of Xiaohongshu to soccer organizations seeking to connect with young Chinese consumers,” a Xiaohongshu spokesperson told Jing Daily. 

Xiaohongshu created a dedicated page for FIFA World Cup 2022 content, which includes latest scores, trending topics, and a poll on favorite teams. Photo: Xiaohongshu

Other tech giants like Migu, a subsidiary of China Mobile, and Douyin are taking a different approach by bringing the World Cup to the metaverse. As two of the six mainland channels with broadcasting rights, Migu and Douyin are both enabling viewers to watch the livestreams in virtual reality. Migu is even hosting a “Metaverse World Cup Music Festival” featuring singers Li Yuchun, G.E.M., and Mandopop legend Jay Chou to celebrate the occasion. Besides driving traffic, these initiatives allow tech companies to test their Web3-related applications in a sports context and improve user experience.

Chinese conglomerates make big investments 

With 5 billion viewers around the world tuning in, Chinese corporations have spared no expense on the World Cup either, investing about $1.39 billion in sponsorships. Wanda Group — which conducts business in commercial properties, culture, and finance — is one of the seven official FIFA Partners this year alongside Coca-Cola and Adidas, committing $850 million as part of a 15-year deal that covers all World Cup events until 2030. The other three Chinese official sponsors are Hisense, Mengniu Dairy and Vivo.

The investment is particularly advantageous for Vivo, the only official sponsor from the smartphone industry. Firstly, the company’s logo is on full display — from the pitch-side advertising boards of every match to each match ticket and press conference backdrop — enabling it to build brand awareness overseas (Vivo sells in more than 60 countries and regions). Secondly, its #VivoGiveItaShot campaign, which encourages people to share World Cup photos online and use Vivo stickers and filters to win prizes, increases customer engagement. 

“We believe that sports can break down cultural barriers and build emotional connections between brands and users, so Vivo has been committed to sponsoring top sports leagues and events for years,” the company stated. “The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will bring Vivo closer to a global audience and enable Vivo to encourage and empower users to capture and share exciting moments.”

The business of sports entertainment 

Whether it’s the World Cup or the Olympics, major sporting events offer brands an opportunity to reach mass audiences, forge new partnerships, and push creativity — even if they’re not paying for top-tier sponsorships. Other ways local players have gotten involved this year include launching collaborative capsules, such as Pros By Ch x Sketchers, as well as hosting in-person activities and festivals.

Pros By Ch teamed up with Sketchers to release a bloke core-themed capsule ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. Photo: Pros By Ch x Sketchers

That said, public attention can quickly fade once such events end. To maintain consumer connections, Zhong advises that “brands could focus their communication on more general topics about sports or health, since the audience’s passion for sports may stay on a high level for a while after a huge sports event.” Additionally, brands could “[build] group chats for local clients to help organize small sports games within communities for entertainment and social purposes.”

Despite the challenges, China is a budding soccer market that should not be passed up. With avid fans eager to spend, and the government in full support of cultivating its soccer culture, there is room for sports and non-sports names alike to score big.

Additional reporting by Elsbeth van Paridon



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