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Social Media and Sport in China | 2.1 Understanding digital and social media in China

China’s social media platforms and online behaviours vary in important ways from what may be considered their international equivalents. Differences that need understanding include language, culture, user behaviours, and SEO techniques. Companies entering the market must adapt their strategies to be successful.

2.1.1 The Chinese sports fan

American football’s NFL breaks down the market as follows:

  • A ‘phase one’ market comprising 118m people – 9 per cent of total population – aged 15 to 54, living in 19 major cities, and comprising 65 per cent of the country’s wealthiest households.
  • A 3 per cent segment of the population made up of 47m males who are early-adopters of the brand. They represent wealthy young men with an interest in sport, whose spend on entertainment has doubled in the last 15 years.

The generations born after 1980 tend to be most vigorous in their interest in sport. The most active group is predominantly male and living in a major city: Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Tianjin Hangzhou, Kunming, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Jinan, Wuhan, Changsha and Dongguan.

Some prominent characteristics of Chinese sports fans include:

  • Eagerness to show themselves as positive and active
  • Enjoy trying new things
  • Positivity about American culture
  • Among their core beliefs is that hard work will lead to success
  • They pursue natural and healthy lifestyles
  • According to NFL China, Chinese sports fans exhibit a strong trust in advertisements.

“To this day if you see someone over 45 years old wearing a Lakers or Green Bay Packers cap I would make a bet that their son is a fan of that team rather than they are,” says Richard Young, managing director at NFL China, the league’s Chinese arm. “It is the kids who tell their parents what is hip and happening, and the parents follow. It is the younger generation who are on social media and they are the brand ambassadors, influencers and market movers for every incoming new brand in China.”

Young says that the cultural differences between Chinese sports fans and Western sports fans are not as pronounced as some say: “There are cultural differences, but those differences are nowhere near as diverse people will have you believe when it comes to marketing good quality products. The Chinese recognise and value quality just like everyone else.”

The younger generation defines itself by being fans of a team or sport just as their brand of car, watch or clothing might help them define themselves. For example, if someone’s favourite sport is American football, they are unlikely to be a poor farmer. They are likely to have a higher income, better education, and to look for high quality products.

Hong Kong actress Angela Yeung, better known by her stage name Angelababy, was recently pictured sporting a New York Giants jersey, resulting in increased sales of the shirt online. “She is also using the brand to define herself,” says Young. “It says: ‘Hey, you wouldn’t expect a young girl to be into these foreign sports, but look at how international I am, and I can understand a sport which is supposedly ‘manly’’.”

2.1.2 Penetrating the market

Long before they engage the Chinese market with a physical presence, brands need to be active on social media. Piggybacking on a big media rights deal – such as state broadcaster CCTV regaining media rights to English Premier League football matches from the 2015-16 season after a 12-year absence – may generate exposure for a Premier League club but not engagement since the activity is not coming directly from club itself. To support media rights deals, grassroots development and tours, brands can develop a voice by creating a two-way conversation with fans on social media platforms.

“Once this is cemented then a brand can move with confidence to broadcast,” says Mailman account manager Vincent Chan. “It’s about creating the reasons why someone should watch a sports event or team, and then telling them where to find it.”

It’s long been established that there isn’t a single best practice or a one-fits-all solution when it comes to developing a social media strategy. A typical three-stage approach to engaging the Chinese market by social media might be:

  • Step 1: Develop a digital media ecosystem where fans recognise the brand.
  • Step 2: Turn fans into brand ambassadors who pass the baton on to the future generation.
  • Stage 3: Commercialise the brand’s fan base.

Monetising social media is still a process that needs development, and is the million-dollar question for nearly every sports organisation. While sports properties can promote ticket sales and merchandise on social platforms, they are not a shopping destination and consumers have to be directed to an organisation’s own or a third-party website to make a purchase. This can make it difficult to measure the revenue directly derived from social media, even in simple sales terms. The huge popularity of e-commerce in China cannot be ignored. An increasingly popular route for clubs wanting to cash in on the social footprint is to establish official online stores.


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