Manchester United’s increased marketing investment in China has paid off with the brand named as the most influential football team online.
Manchester United beat out past winners Bayern Munich and Liverpool to take the top position in the annual Red Card Report, created by digital consultancy Mailman.
The report, now in its sixth year, analyses the online presence of European Football Teams across Weibo, WeChat, websites, e-commerce platforms and apps to determine their influence in the lucrative China market.
Manchester United took the top position for the first time after the club bolstered its investment in Chinese digital channels and flew its entire team and a staff of 130 people to China for its Tour 2016 event. The club also signed a major broadcast deal with Chinese online sports platform Sina Sports.
David Hornby, sports director at Mailman, said, “Manchester United have been one of the last teams to launch on WeChat and one of the last to do a Chinese website. This ranking is a coming of age for the brand and a reflection of the increased investment they have made.
“What sets Manchester United apart is how far ahead they are on WeChat, which receives 750,000 unique monthly readers, which is nearly double Liverpool and Arsenal.”
The club’s influence was bolstered by the popularity of its star players, Cristiano Ronaldo topped the individual player rankings ahead of Mesut Ozil, Gareth Bale and Anthony Martial, while Wayne Rooney ranked in fifth place.
The report also revealed that German football league Bundesliga is the most influential league online in China for the second year running, beating the Premier League, La Liga & Serie A.
Hornby said the surprising ranking reflected the comprehensive content strategy that Bundesliga has implemented, which involves promoting all 18 clubs online with viral campaigns.
“The Bundesliga is not necessarily more popular than the Premier League, however, their channels and owned-media are far more powerful and influential than anything the Premier League is doing. The Bundesliga have made a significant investment in time, energy and resources, and their digital platforms are miles ahead.”
This year's report also included live streaming figures. The technology has experienced strong growth in China, where more than 200 live stream platforms battle to gain market share of over 300 million users.
While most of the clubs are “dipping their toes” into the live streaming market, Hornby said German club Borussia Dortmund were the first European club to successfully live stream in China, attracting over 500,000 people to their content.
The report aims to shine a light on how the European football leagues are navigating the Chinese market, which is fast becoming one of the most lucrative in terms of broadcast rights and the sheer volume of fans from China’s 1.4 billion people.
The football market in China has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years driven by the government's ambition to host and ultimately win the FIFA World Cup in the next 15 years. This ambition has led to an increased investment in fostering grassroots football with brands such as Adidas focusing marketing activity on this area.
It comes as the Chinese Super League continues to grow in popularity and attract big names such as Carlos Tevez, who joined Shanghai Shenhua FC in December.