Realising Value with China’s Digitally Engaged Football Fans

5 minute read

By Michael Paradiso, Hot Pot Client Director

Chinese football fans are the most digitally engaged in the world, and European football leagues and clubs have been creating experiences exclusively for them.

For years, the top European clubs have steadily been building a presence in China and battling for share of voice and mind. Yet in a market where no club has home field advantage, clubs have to engage fans in other ways, in an attempt to build loyalty.

In recent years, an increasing number of clubs have taken part in pre-season tournaments in China and hosted events in major cities throughout the country. However, the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly halted those events and forced clubs to innovate. 


The Size of the Prize

Why should football clubs – or any major sports team or league – focus on Chinese fans? In short, there is immediate untapped potential as well as significant long-term growth opportunities.

Although China is still a developing football market, it is nevertheless attractive to clubs and sports brands. There are 237 million Chinese who consider football to be their ‘favourite sport,’ and 308 million Chinese consumers watch football ‘at least once a week.’

Admittedly, Chinese football fans spend less than their European counterparts. Chinese fans spend on average £15 per year, compared with German fans who spend £160 (€178) annually on merchandise, tickets, and TV.

While the average spend per person is significantly lower, the potential size of the Chinese football market is about nine times greater than the German market, and the average spend per person is expected to grow as the number of affluent households in China rises. As a result consumers are increasingly trading up across key categories.


A Digitally Engaged Fan Base

Even more than fans in the UK and Brazil, Chinese football fans are the most digitally engaged fans in the world.

Chinese fans are the most active on social media, with 57% posting memes, video clips and images online, compared to an average of 40% across the other countries surveyed in The Modern Football Fan report from COPA90.

The Chinese fans are also the most active on forums and group chats, with 43% chatting regularly to other fans. By comparison, only 29% of US fans, 31% of UK fans and 38% of Brazilian fans are active on forums and group chats. 

Additionally, more than half of Chinese fans (52%) regularly play football-related computer games.


How to realise commercial returns on the investment

Leagues and Clubs must invest time and financial resources to build their brand and grow an engaged fan base in China. Many sports organisations have set up Chinese social media channels and have a basic fan acquisition strategy. They may even have a local team headquartered in China or more often, southeast Asia. Yet many clubs struggle to monetize that initial investment, largely because they lack a strategic plan for doing so.

The biggest mistake that we observe at Hot Pot is that clubs will acquire fans by the bucket-load and expect that high numbers of impressions leads directly to monetization. More often than not this is proven not to be the case due to shortcomings in a few key areas.

1) Firstly, clubs must develop a unique proposition for Chinese fans. While star players and the culture of the club’s home city can certainly be a draw, players get traded and many fans may never visit the city in question, so there needs to be a deeper, more meaningful connection. What are the core values and timeless themes of the club that are likely to resonate with Chinese fans on a deeper level?

2) Once established, clubs need to focus on targeted fan acquisition through engaging digital content. Align the content with the unique proposition. Focus more on the quality of fan compared with the quantity of fans. Quality fans will have greater loyalty, higher engagement and ultimately will spend more per person.

3) Drive loyalty through CRM segmentation and re-targeting. Build sub-communities and enable fans to share their knowledge and learn about their players and the club. 

Only once the brand and community has been properly established, should clubs turn the focus to monetization. 

One revenue source is to sell directly to fans. Engaged fans will want the latest authentic kit and will spend to take part in exclusive events (offline or digital). Merchandise accounts for 50% of all spending from Chinese football fans.

Another key revenue driver is for media rights. An engaged fan base gives teams and leagues greater leverage when negotiating media rights. One example is the current 3-year deal between the English Premier League and China’s PPTV. Signed through the 2021-2022 season, the deal is worth £564 million over three years. The agreement represents a 12x increase over the previous contract.

A final revenue source is by creating rights holder value. In exchange for higher fees, clubs give sponsors access to saleable assets on digital properties, exposure rights at events, brand rights in China, and player rights for influencer endorsements. A report revealed that two-thirds (65%) of Chinese football fans intend to buy products from a football club’s official sponsor.


The Impact of Covid-19

In response to cancelled events in China and postponed matches back home, clubs have had to find innovative ways to connect with fans. These are some of the best examples of how clubs engaged their fans, and likely attracted new fans in the process.

In April, Chelsea live-streamed a digital interactive show, dedicated for Chinese fans, on Weibo and Douyin, that had 7.5 million views and 2 million hashtag reads. 

The two-hour broadcast featured historical footage, special guests, a musical performance, influencers, giveaways, behind the scenes footage, and fan Q&As.

In May, when the Bundesliga season restarted, Dortmund hosted an offline fan event in Shanghai to view the Dortmund vs Schalke match. The two clubs also collaborated to live-stream the fan event, to allow others to digitally experience the match and the live fan atmosphere in China.

In Conclusion

Sports organisations of all sizes are increasingly tapping into Chinese digitally-savvy sports fans to grow their revenues and rights holder value. That said, these efforts take time and investment to properly monetize fans.

  • China has a sizeable and largely untapped base of digitally-engaged sports fans
  • Start by developing a unique proposition for the club / league
  • Focus on targeted fan acquisition – engaged, high-quality fans will have greater returns
  • Expand key revenue streams across fan revenue, media rights, and sponsor value

Contact Hot Pot China and talk to us about how to implement and leverage the above strategies to increase revenues in China.

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