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Barcelona, Premier League and Ronaldo top performers in Mailman’s Red Card report

FC Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo and the English Premier League were the big winners in the 2020 edition of the Mailman Group’s Red Card report, that assesses the strength of football properties online in China.

The report, which is based on data collected in 2019, said Barcelona was the best-supported team online in 2019, beating arch rivals Real Madrid into second place. The club’s achievements included more than doubling its followers on Weibo, adding 8.3 million new followers to take its total to 16.3 million. Its number of engagements on Weibo increased by 45 per cent to 16 million between 2018 and 2019.

Commenting on the award, Barcelona board member Didac Lee said: “Our challenge is to create content for China that is bespoke to the ever-evolving digital landscape, culture and habits of this market and we’re proud to be recognised for outstanding fan growth and engagement.”

Elsewhere in the clubs ranking, Chelsea overtook Manchester United and Manchester City to become the most popular Premier League club, and third most popular club overall. Mailman said this was “thanks to their highly effective local video strategy, 2 million follower growth on Douyin and 1.3 million new followers on Weibo”.

The biggest mover was 14th-placed Espanyol, up 27 places compared to last year thanks to the signing of Chinese national team star Wu Lei.

The report said that summer tours of China had notable effects on teams’ fortunes in the ranking: “Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, Manchester United, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and more visited China during the summer and activated extensively across digital channels to improve their position…Arsenal, FC Bayern, and Liverpool did not visit the region and dropped down the rankings.”

Top 20 most popular football clubs online in China – Red Card 2020

Player power

Juventus and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo was the most popular player online in China, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar Jr. in second spot, and Lionel Messi in third.

Commenting on his win, Ronaldo told Mailman: “I am very pleased with this award. I know that I have a huge part of fans in China and it means a lot to be on top of the table for the second year in a row. Thank you very much for this, it’s a pleasure to be with you all.”

However, Mailman noted that player follower growth on Weibo was slowing, in part because of a failure to produce video content. The report said: “After a record-breaking 2018, player accounts decreased in performance metrics on Weibo, with a widening gap between the top 5 per cent and the rest of the pack. Annual follower growth had an overall decrease of 27 per cent and engagement experienced a 15-per-cent drop.

“The fall in performance comes as most players failed to adapt their content to changing Chinese audience behaviour, especially with more users turning their focus to video and platforms such as Douyin to consume icon content.”

Douyin, branded as TikTok in Western markets, is the breakout social media platform of the last couple of years in China and around the world, and is built around short-form, user-generated video.

The report underlined the growing importance of Douyin, and more broadly of content produced specially for China: “China continues to thrive as an icon market yet many players are yet to show full commitment to the country. In order to do so, players have to build a relationship with fans by adapting to new trends and generating bespoke local content. Giving fans the chance to interact and see a different side to the players through short-form videos will drive viewership and support. Neymar recognised this as he kept Lionel Messi in third place in the Red Card 2020 rankings thanks to the launch of his official Douyin account in January 2019. Neymar Jr. with 1.2 million followers is by far the most followed footballer on Douyin.”

League leaders

For the second year in a row, the Premier League was the most popular league online in China. The report said it “outperformed its European peers across all metrics”. The Premier League Asian Trophy pre-season tournament, and tours of China by Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur were credited with major contributions to the league’s growth.

The Premier League was particularly successful on Douyin, becoming the first league to reach 1m followers. The report said the league’s content was successful because it ticked three boxes – there was strong storytelling, the content was emotionally stirring, and star players were used.

Welcoming the award, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said of the league’s Chinese fanbase: “We witnessed their passionate support during last year’s successful Premier League Asia Trophy in Nanjing and Shanghai, something that has been reflected by the growing popularity of our digital coverage in the country.

“Through our dedicated content team we have delivered innovative and compelling content across key platforms such as Douyin and Weibo, while the tournament itself also provided a valuable opportunity to offer promotional support for [local media rights partner] PP Sports, as we officially launched our broadcast partnership with them.

“We are committed to developing our digital presence in China and bringing the Premier League closer to millions of fans in the country.”

LaLiga overtook the Bundesliga to grab second place. Mailman put the move down to two important factors – a strong performance on Douyin, and Wu Lei. Despite lagging the Premier League on Douyin, LaLiga nevertheless produced extensive content around its strongest clubs and players, resulting in 1.2 million followers by the end of the year. Wu Lei helped LaLiga fill the gap left by Ronaldo, who moved to Serie A last season.

Commenting on the findings in this year’s report, Andrew Collins, chief executive of Mailman Group, said: “We saw 100 per cent year-on-year growth in followers on Weibo and a 45-per-cent increase in engagement across the world’s biggest teams this past year, as football fast becomes more socially relevant and digitally friendly on China’s major platforms. There were 16.3 million new followers on Weibo across the top clubs, with more than 20 teams now engaging their fans on Douyin as digital continued to explode in China over the past 12 months.”

The Red Card 2020 report also made awards in several other categories. The winners were:

  • Best Fan Event: FC Bayern Munich – for events run in partnership with Bundesliga media rights partner PP Sports.
  • Best China Tour: Tottenham Hotspur – which included an influencer campaign using famous singer and renowned fan Jason Gu and the launch of an ecommerce presence on Tmall.
  • Best Original Video: Chelsea FC – for the 15-episode Chelsea Studio Show produced for Chinese audiences.
  • Best Sponsorship: Jiangzhong Hougu – for the food brand’s sponsorship of streaming platform iQiyi’s sports coverage.
  • Best CSR Project: AIA – for its ‘3 vs 100 challenge’, where three first team players from sponsorship partner Tottenham Hotspur took on 100 children from the China Football Development Foundation (CFDF) in a game of football.
  • Best Grassroots Project: LaLiga – for under-16 tournament the LaLiga Hope Cup.
  • Best Use Of Influencers: Manchester United – for a campaign with singer, actor and mega-celebrity Lu Han.
  • Best Use of Technology: Paris St-Germain – for a game produced for WeChat’s H5 interactive media platform.
  • Best Use Of Design: Fifa – for a Women’s World Cup campaign that created an illustration of a female player using words of encouragement from fans for the China women’s national team.
  • Best Use Of Fan Clubs: Borussia Dortmund – for the Hero Circle, a ‘mini program’ on WeChat that allows Chinese fans to organise events and get-togethers.
  • Most Viewed Video On Douyin: Paris Saint-Germain
  • The Weibo Award: Chelsea FC

Mailman is a sports digital agency and consultancy, that was founded and remains headquartered in China, but has expanded to Southeast Asia, the UK and the US.