Manchester United’s pre-season tour to China last summer helped the club become the most influential football team online in the burgeoning football market, according to a new report.
For the first time, the Premier League giants have taken the top spot in the annual ranking from Shanghai-based sports consultancy Mailman of the best-performing clubs online in China.
United’s pre-season tour to the country in July was beset by difficulties including their heavily-publicised International Champions Cup game with Manchester City in Beijing being cancelled at just a few hours’ notice due to a waterlogged pitch.
Yet despite the physical hurdles, the commercial benefits of visiting the country were underlined by the club’s performance in the digital space where they leapfrogged Bayern Munich according to Mailman’s 2017 Red Card report.
United were ranked as the most effective on club at reaching fans by leveraging social media platform Weibo and instant messaging app WeChat, which boast of over 300m and 800m monthly active users respectively.
|Rank||Most influential clubs||Most influential leagues||Most influential players|
|1||Manchester United||Bundesliga||Cristiano Ronaldo|
|2||Bayern Munich||Premier League||Mesut Ozil|
|3||Arsenal (=3)||La Liga||Gareth Bale|
|4||Liverpool (=3)||Serie A||Anthony Martial|
|5||Manchester City||–||Wayne Rooney|
“We can see a real tangible relationship between visiting China and online performance,” said Mailman’s senior client manager Tom Elsden.
“They were out here over the summer and that had a massive impact not just for United but also for Borussia Dortmund [who played in the International Champions Cup] and Manchester City.
“They were very strong with their offline fan engagement as well as their digital activation with key partners.
“One of the major media networks out here, Sina Sports — think maybe the BBC or ITV of China — they were running a lot offline of fan events where you could meet and greet players.
“There were also three on three tournaments with Manchester United legends and fans. There was a whole five day plan designed to make the most of them being on the ground in China and they brought all of that excitement online.”
Although United have lost their grip on the top of the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Mailman do not expect that United — who have had an office in Hong Kong since 2012 — to fall from favour in the market.
“Their position is very, very stable,” said Elsden. “They’re still by far one of the most followed teams and they’re certainly not worried about short-term performances and lack of Champions League exposure.”
Bayern Munich followed United in second position, ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal who were tied together in third, City in fifth and Real Madrid in sixth.
Yet despite the presence of four English clubs in the top five, Mailman said the German Bundesliga outperformed the Premier League in China’s digital space.
The Bundesliga has enjoyed a long-standing presence in China thanks to a partnership with state broadcaster CCTV5 which dates back over two decades.
Yet it has also developed a “comprehensive content strategy to promote all 18 clubs online” according to Mailman.
“The Bundesliga’s mentality is about growing the whole of the league, not just the Bundesliga brand,” said Elsden.
“It’s about promoting German football and ‘if we all win then that’s the best case’. They’ve done a very good job of promoting German fan culture, the league is renowned for its stadium experience and the 50+1 rule which means fans have a controlling stake in their club — that’s something that really resonates well with Chinese fans.”
The emergence of China as a footballing powerhouse has seen a number of Chinese Super League teams paying out huge sums to bring high-profile players from Europe to the domestic division.
Yet while European clubs may find it harder to keep players in their squad, they needn’t worry about losing fans in China.
“There’s definitely been an upward trend in the popularity of Chinese Super League clubs,” said Elsden.
“But from our perspective at the moment it’s not threatening the European elite. Part of it’s just the way the seasons are run — the Chinese Super League season runs from March to October/November.
“A lot of Chinese fans support a European club — if not one or two — as well as their local club.”