Digitally native | Rights-holders look to replicate NBA’s success in China

  • NBA seen as go-to template for breaking China
  • Important to embrace expat Chinese communities in home country first
  • Only a handful of Premier League teams have Tmall stores

China’s sports industry is booming and western rights-holders want a piece of the action.

The NBA is a high-profile pioneer of conquering China, but the Premier League, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Formula One and Euroleague Basketball are amongst those right-holders following in its wake, weighing in with heavyweight digital offensives as they make a land grab for eyeballs in a sports-mad nation.

Forward-thinking major sports properties share the views of Luca Scafati, head of business development at Euroleague Basketball, who says: “We all know China is a big market. We all want to be there.”

The appeal of China is obvious: a population of 1.4 billion, 685 million of whom live in urban areas in a country that boasts the world’s second-largest economy. Throw in a sport-adoring leader, President Xi Jinping, who plans to build an $800m (€680m) sports industry by 2025, and you can understand why rights-holders are clocking up air miles to Beijing and Shanghai.

However, for those who wish to replicate the NBA’s blueprint in China, the path is a tricky one. Mercedes-Benz, Nike and Groupon are among those to have reportedly faced challenges in understanding the country’s etiquette and customs.

In spite of government-imposed restrictions on access to Facebook, Twitter and Google, China pulses with digital innovation. About 70 per cent of the population own a smartphone, while there are 670 million internet users. Therefore an ill-thought-out digital strategy or rogue social media post can prove disastrous: witness the fallout from a recent derogatory social media post by Chelsea’s Brazilian star Kenedy.

Zhe Ji, director at Red Lantern Digital Media, which helps brands engage with audiences in China, says: “In terms of content, the biggest challenge sports right-holders face is to stand out in an increasingly competitive and saturated market. 

“This not only means creating content that resonates with the Chinese audience culturally, but also using local digital platforms and influencers properly to promote their content.”

PICTURE: The Los Angeles Clippers take on the Charlotte Hornets in Shenzhen, China (Getty Images)

NBA template

For many rights-holders, the NBA is seen as the go-to template if you want success in China. Aided by an inherent love of basketball in China, the NBA orchestrated a long-standing, well-thought out strategy to conquer the country, helped by digital activity aimed at ingratiating itself with Chinese citizens around the world.

“The NBA has always been very careful to be seen as supportive, collaborative, making a contribution to the development of Chinese basketball,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University.

Pre-season games, exhibition contests, match-ups streamed on mobile and NBA offices in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Taipei, have all provided a foundation for selling the league. However, it has been a carefully plotted social media strategy that has rocketed the NBA’s brand to another level of popularity. The league has more than 100 million followers on social media outlets such as Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Tencent Qzone and WeChat, more than any other western brand or company in China.

Key to its success in China has been to embrace its Chinese fans in other countries, particularly the US. The Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, for instance, have large local Chinese communities. Those teams regularly post smart social media content during the Chinese New Year, helping the NBA score hundreds of millions of impressions with a New Year-tailored hashtag.

Andrew Collins, the chief executive of sports marketing agency Mailman, which advises clients on the Chinese market, says: “Recognition of Chinese festivals and holidays demonstrates a brand’s commitment to the Chinese audience and is a great point to launch online campaigns, e-commerce sales and other activation.”

PICTURE: Bayern Munich takes on Barcelona in the Euroleague (Getty Images)

Euroleague learning

Euroleague Basketball is one rights-holder that has learned from the NBA’s experience as it looks to upweight its brand presence in China.

“You need investment to build a strategy,” Scafati adds. “When you are in China, only Chinese people can manage the rights.” The league made its first steps into the Chinese market 10 years ago, hosting exhibition games featuring Russia’s CSKA Moscow, Italy’s Benetton Treviso and Team China, with legend Yao Ming in its ranks. More games followed and the Euroleague’s presence in China was boosted in 2015 when it signed a €30m rights deal with Chinese media group HBN.

Scafati says that choosing the right mix of social channels – in Euroleague Basketball’s case, Seino Weibo, China’s Instagram-like app Nice and WeChat – has helped it to spread its varying content, including pictures, stories and video, to different demographics. However, one stumbling block to cut through with Chinese audiences, says Scafati, is that they crave star players, which is at odds with the Euroleague’s team-based mentality.

“People in China don’t know European basketball,” he says. “They are not used to the way we communicate. We are team based. They want stars, but in Europe we are about the team.” To overcome this barrier, the Euroleague is fine-tuning its content to better reflect the tastes of the Chinese.

PICTURE: Li Na promotes the Wuhan Open in 2015 (Getty Images)


The women’s tennis game is flourishing in China, helped by the recent success of Li Na and growing participation levels.

For WTA president Micky Lawler, the best advice she can give other rights-holders is to devolve responsibility to a Chinese partner. This year the WTA inked a 10-year partnership with Chinese digital platform iQiyi, significantly upping its digital capabilities. The deal means that tennis fans can watch matches across iQiyi’s online, mobile and OTT video services in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

She says that a Chinese partner is best placed to build content “around the nucleus” of the live matches, be it archive, video or behind-the-scenes content, as they have an understanding of the audience that western rights-holders don’t have.

“They understand the way the younger generation are consuming media and consuming sports and they are not just going to look at the live game,” Lawler adds. “It is about the back story of the athletes and that is how you incentivise the younger generation to become a true fan of the sport.”

PICTURE: Manchester United fans in Shanghai (Getty Images)

Premier ambitions

Manchester United is the most followed club in the world on Chinese social media with 8.7 million fans, while English Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Arsenal have Alibaba-run Tmall stores to sell merchandise.

Tapping into the Chinese love of celebrities, Manchester United made a special video on Weibo for the Chinese singer and actor Lu Han, wishing him a happy birthday – a post that attracted 13 million comments.

The Premier League itself shares content for casual and hardcore fans on social media and live blogs content on Chinese social media, but it faces a challenge.

“In an extremely star-centric market, aside from exploiting its star assets fully, the rights-holder will also be challenged to generate interest in all their teams, players and activities,” says Ji. “For example, for the Premier League, the challenge is to ensure it promotes all 20 clubs in China, thereby instilling fandom not only in individual Premier League clubs but also in the competition and the league as a whole.”

Another sport wanting to raise its profile in China is Formula One, which recently appointed Lagardère Sports to help it forge digital partnerships in the country. According to Andrew Georgiou, chief executive, Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, the Chinese fans are “craving, premium local and live sports and entertainment”.

PICTURE: The 2017 F1 Shanghai Grand Prix (Getty Images)


E-commerce is booming in China, so it is perhaps surprising that so few rights-holders – and western sports brands in general – are harvesting such channels to monetise their operations in China.

China’s e-commerce market was worth $440bn in 2014 and is expected to hit $1.1bn by 2019, according to Forrester Research, with the majority of social media users buying online more than three times per month. Only a handful of Premier League teams have Tmall stores though while rights-holders, such as the Euroleague, are not yet ready to monetise their wares through such channels.

In the past, clubs may have been reluctant to develop online stores due to the large grey market in China, in which goods are traded through distribution channels that are legal, but are unauthorised by the manufactures. However, Chinese football fans are increasingly demanding authentic goods to buy direct from the clubs, which presents an opportunity.

“Ten years ago, you would see all kinds of fake jerseys on the streets here, but the increased purchasing power of Chinese football fans and the ease with which it is now possible to buy online have made a huge market for authentic merchandise,” says John Yan, founder of China-based social media agency Score.

However, according to Ji, the conversion of fans into buyers is one of the “biggest challenges rights-holders face”. He says: “It is not merely enough to ensure payment methods like WeChat pay and Alipay are integrated into one's marketing mix. Promotional strategy, product and timing are also crucial.”

It seems likely that as rights-holders build their brands in China, they will mine e-commerce channels.

For now, though, most are minded to establish a toehold in the market and, while they might take a few wrong turns on the way, they will continue to plough money into conquering China as the bounty on offer is too rich to ignore.

PICTURE: Chinese AC Milan fans (Getty Images)

EXTRA: Time and money

While rights-holders have no prescribed rulebook to crack China, there does seem a broad consensus that it can’t be approached half-heartedly or done on the cheap and that it requires time and investment.

Kelly Williams, managing director of Sports Revolution, which manages English Premier League football club West Bromwich Albion’s digital content in China, says that western companies think they can send out a “couple of reps to China” and crack it.

“You have to be prepared to do it differently. Translation doesn’t work because there are so many cultural and etiquette differences,” she says.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University, adds: “I don’t think that most western rights-holders are creating especially engaging content. They think you can create one type of content and it will translate to several different territories.” He says that even Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a presence on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, has failed to replicate his European popularity to the Chinese.

“He doesn’t have empathy with the Chinese as it looks like he just wants to make money,” Chadwick says.

Experts say that rights-holders posting on social should be authentic – sometimes posting in English can add authenticity – and should include lots of video, incentivise fans with competitions and be aware that the Chinese government screens posts.

Ji says that choosing a Chinese partner that understands a rights-holder’s values and tone is crucial. He says: “Some agencies simply offer a translation model, which will not work. It is important to choose an agency that understands a brand's values and tone, so that it can be adapted properly in China.”

A big mistake that rights-holders can make, according to Mason Ku, head of marketing, ChoZan, which offers training courses in Chinese social media etiquette, is a misunderstanding of what makes Chinese audiences tick. He says: “Sports teams should generate content related to the hot topics on Chinese social media, news in China or Chinese culture, in order to capture the attention of the Chinese audiences.”

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