China's 'icon market' is creating more fans of soccer stars — not the clubs they play for

Key Points
  • According to the 2019 edition of the Red Card report produced by Mailman, China's leading sports digital marketing agency, Cristiano Ronaldo is the number one player online among Chinese people, ahead of Paris Saint Germain's Neymar Jr and last year's leader Lionel Messi.
  • Indications also show that Chinese soccer fans engage mostly with individuals through their national teams rather than club sides.
  • Paul Pogba and Mesut Ozil are the most followed players in China, of players playing in England. Both of whom helped their countries to win the FIFA World Cup in 2018 with France and in 2014 with Germany, respectively.
Paul Pogba of Manchester United warms up prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.
Michael Regan | Getty Images

Keeping Chinese fans loyal to one particular soccer team seems to be no easy task, with a new report highlighting the country's "icon market" and how supporters are more likely to stick with individual players more than just the teams they play for.

According to the 2019 edition of the Red Card report produced by Mailman, China's leading sports digital marketing agency, Cristiano Ronaldo is the number one player online among Chinese people, ahead of Paris Saint Germain's Neymar Jr and last year's leader Lionel Messi.

The knock-on effect of Ronaldo's 100 million euro ($114 million) transfer to Juventus last summer has though seen a surge of interest in the Italian team. Its numbers on social media in China increased by over 126,000 following the move, with content focused on the player showing to be 280 percent more engaged in.

Indications also show that Chinese soccer fans engage mostly with individuals through their national teams rather than club sides. Paul Pogba and Mesut Ozil are the most followed players in China, of players playing in England. Both of whom helped their countries to win the FIFA World Cup in 2018 with France and in 2014 with Germany, respectively.

"China's fan behavior is unique to the West with Chinese often following a player over a club. This can also result in fans following multiple teams where the player has transferred from. In the FIFA World Cup year, we saw around 95 percent of footballers total social follower growth happening post tournament," Tom Elsden, Mailman's senior client manager told CNBC.

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Manchester United announced plans earlier in January that it had partnered with Chinese property investor Harves to open three new entertainment experiences in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang by 2020. The intention is to capitalize on what the club calls its "100 million followers in China."

Manchester United told CNBC that it defines the term "followers" as those individuals who answered survey questions, unprompted, with the answer that Manchester United was either their favorite football team in the world or a football team that they enjoyed following in addition to their favorite football team.

"Manchester United enjoys a healthy level of support among Chinese. But so do plenty of other teams among Europe's top four or five leagues, including all the usual suspects: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus etc. Assume, for a moment, other clubs each enjoy a following of 50 million — less than half of what Man Utd claims — then you quickly get up to more than half the total population of China, which is obviously not right." Mark Dreyer, founder of Chinese sports business analysis site China Sports Insider told CNBC.

"By the club's own definition, a passionate Manchester City supporter — or 'fan', in the typical sense — also takes an interest in their hated rivals' results, and therefore also becomes a 'follower' of Manchester United. But the vast majority of people do not make this important distinction" Mark Dreyer, founder of Chinese sports business analysis site China Sports Insider, told CNBC.

However, according to information from the Red Card Report, Manchester United is still definitively the most followed sports team on Chinese digital platform Weibo with 9.3 million followers.

The data show Manchester United has nearly six million more followers than Spanish side Real Madrid, but only 1 million more than its local English Premier League rival Manchester City.

That said, Real Madrid was singled out for praise as the second-fastest growing club across all platforms following its thirteenth European Cup success in May. That's also despite a loss of around 8,000 followers after Ronaldo's departure.

"Without a doubt, China represents an increasingly important scenario for all European football clubs. We worked hard to innovate and move with the fast-changing landscape and this is reflected in our digital growth and commitment," Real Madrid said in a statement to the Red Card Report.

The English Premier League has also made a push to increase its Chinese fan base over the past year as well, not least by becoming the first European league to launch an official Chinese app. It has also strengthened its existing cooperation agreement with the Chinese Super League (CSL) by increasing support for youth, coach and referee development across the country.

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