China is currently seeing a shift in its most popular spectator sports. This is a change clearly driven by western influence and the growth of international sporting events, and is providing a huge opportunity to sporting brands worldwide.
Prior to the early 1990s, sports in China were entirely funded by the government. This ended when Chinese football was professionalized with the launch of the now-defunct Jia-A League. Jia-A was followed by the Chinese Super League, which continues to this day.
The Olympic Games continues to be where China really flexes its muscles on the international stage. Since the 1992 Games, they have failed to finish lower than 4th place in the medal rankings and were the overall winners in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. This success is especially impressive considering China did not participate until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The 2022 Winter Olympics Games will also be held in Beijing.
In 2018 Forbes reported an 11.1% growth in Chinese sports fans’ sport related expenses, growing more than the Chinese domestic economy itself. It shows that in urban areas of China, 59% of people are fans of at least one sport. 82% of this group are aged between 26 and 45 and comes from cities other than Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen..
Along with the overall growing interest in sports, the nation’s favourite sports are also seeing a change. Table tennis and badminton are traditional favorites in China, and while they are still very popular (37% and 36% respectively), this support is seeing a decline over time. Basketball (40%) has now become the most popularly supported sport in the country, though its growth has actually stagnated somewhat.
There are a number of sports whose popularity is rising quickly in China. For instance, 31% of citizens now consider themselves fans of football (soccer). China has only qualified for a single FIFA World Cup, where they lost all 3 group-stage games, but this surge in support for football could see them earning success in future tournaments. Other sports currently seeing a growth in support include cycling (26%), motorsports (21%), mixed martial arts (14%), and swimming (34%).
Nielson Sports estimates that technology, mostly online media platforms, is central to the market’s growth. 82% of sports fans are from outside the Tier-1 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen). Without the ability to easily get to stadiums in these cities, television coverage, streaming services and social media support are all hugely important in spreading sporting interest across the country.
Not only is China seeing growth in its high-level competitive sports industry, but also in the level of participation for its citizens. The Nielsen Sports report also highlights that 32% of China’s urban population now actively participates in sport, a trend which seems to be continuing.
Of these people, running is becoming significantly more popular, with 47% participation in 2016, up from 31% in 2013. To see the extent to which the Chinese have adopted running, one can simply look at the growth of marathons in China. In 2011, there were 22 such races with over 800 participants hosted in China. By 2017, that number had risen to 1,102. Badminton, basketball, table tennis and swimming complete the list of the sports most popularly participated in.
Finally, Chinese winter sports are also seeing an impressive growth in participation. China is home to the world’s largest beginners’ market for skiiing and other winter sports. From 2009 to 2016 the number of visitors to ski regions in China shot up from 5.5 million to just over 15 million.
As with all major shifts in Chinese culture and economy, the government has played a huge part in this renewed focus on sport. The government laid out plans in 2014 to create a sports industry worth $813 billion USD (CNY five trillion) by 2025. The objectives of this venture are many, including aims to improve the health and fitness of China’s citizens, to encourage foreign investment, and to support both grassroots sports participation as well as success at international competitions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has consistently been a strong supporter of China’s sporting interest, once stating: “Strong youths lead to a strong country and strong sports leads to a strong China.”
Results from the plan were seen almost immediately. From 2015 to 2016, the number of brands participating in the sports industry in China had grown by 21.7%, and the number of workers shot up to 4.4 million people. According to the South China Morning Post, spending on sports-related entertainment grew by 17.1% in the first half of 2017, and totalled over $17 trillion USD (CNY 116 trillion).
American-dominated sports have been enjoying steady growth in popularity from Chinese viewers. The NBA played its first game in China in 2004, and have returned to play another 25 games since then. Support for basketball in China really took off with the drafting of Yao Ming first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2004, whose first game drew more than 200 million viewers.
The league attracted 640 million Chinese viewers over the 2017-2018 season and estimates an incredible 300 million people play the sport regularly in China.
An estimated 900,000 Chinese fans now watch each NFL game, a sport that isn’t played to a high level outside of North America. Richard Young, the managing director of NFL China, expects to see a game played in China at some point in the future. This would continue a trend started with the annual NFL games played in London, as well as the example set by the NBA.
To say this shift in focus offers opportunities to brands is a major understatement.
Sportswear in China is enjoying a lot of success from this cultural change. It’s become very popular in recent years to wear sports clothing in everyday life, a trend commonly known as athleisure. In China, it’s seen as a way to display a youthful attitude and an orientation towards healthy living.
In fact, western sportswear is increasingly replacing luxury names as the go-to shopping destinations for Chinese consumers. Rather than buying home-grown brands or major Chinese labels, shoppers are becoming more attracted to western brands. Big-names brands like Nike and Adidas lead the way, beating out the biggest Chinese brands, Anta, Li Ning and Xtep. Others like Lululemon, Puma and Under Armour are also finding strong footholds in the Chinese market.
One brand succeeding in the market is Skechers. Willie Tan, CEO of Skechers China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, has said, “The investment environment in China is becoming better and better. Right now, this market is the fastest-growing globally for Skechers.” The American brand was quick to jump on this emerging market 10 years ago, and has since seen an average of 73% annual sales growth.
For brands to have success selling in China, it is important they understand Chinese consumers, culture, technology and more. The NBA should be seen as the model to aspire for in this regard, whose development has been driven by a comprehensive understanding of the Chinese market. The availability of television viewing across the nation, social media activity, of which 180 million people in China are followers, and implementation of technology to the viewing experience have all been brilliantly handled by the NBA.
China rarely does things in half-measures. There have already been a number of massive investments into China’s sport-related industries. Some of the most notable examples include: