China confuses me: understanding our followers in the Asian country
26 Feb 2021

It is often said that sports clubs follow an increasingly similar business model to a multinational. The biggest European football teams have two to four times more followers on social networks than the populations of their own countries. Asians represent the largest portion of these foreign fans, and most particularly China. The NBA had 300 million Chinese fans watching its games last season, a figure almost as high as the total population of the United States, and yet that number is still only a small fraction of China’s population of 1.4 billion people. China is a huge market, and very profitable too, but it is also one from which one can be abruptly expelled, as has happened to the NBA itself. It is not easy to understand Chinese sports culture, especially for American and European clubs.

This cultural confusion always comes from the same source: the way people view social life. The athletes and coaches at Western clubs do feel that they should respect the ways of their teams, leagues and federations, but with the freedom to express their opinions, disagree and even be in conflict with their own club. That is not only in terms of sport, but also regarding any social or even political trend. Chinese sport is the complete opposite. Hierarchy is absolutely respected, and players must abide by whatever their supreme authority, league or federation dictates. This comes naturally to them because their cultural and social heritage obliges them to put group decisions ahead of individual ones, just as children learn from an early age to show respect for their families, teachers and political authorities. It is important to understand that although in our mentality such a lack of individual freedom might seem unacceptable, for Chinese people it is the things that our players do that make so little sense.

Few cases have reflected this better than two of the biggest names in European football, Mesut Özil of Turkey and Wayne Rooney of England. They had both become very popular in China, with a large number of followers. Özil had 6 million followers on Weibo, the most important social network in the country, until he criticised the treatment by the Chinese political authorities of the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority whose Muslim religion he felt identified with. Although he made the post on Twitter, friends and advisers warned him that he had lost all hope in the Chinese market, as was indeed the case. Özil’s avatar was deleted from Chinese video games, and his name was removed from search engines, which merely produced an error. His own team erased his image from merchandising designed to celebrate Chinese New Year. The player’s decision also affected the English league, whose two associated Chinese television networks, CCTV and PPSports, refused to broadcast Arsenal games. It should be emphasised here that China is the most important foreign broadcasting partner of Premier League matches.

As for Wayne Rooney, once his popularity spread in China, as a result of playing for Manchester United, he hired an agency specialised in Chinese sports marketing, RedLantern. Two coordinated teams in Beijing and the United Kingdom monitored the athlete’s fingerprint, making it easier for his Chinese fans to get details about his life and his sporting successes, while avoiding any possible controversy.

In cases like these, it is easy to simply imagine that China has an authoritarian system and that its people have no freedom. But we should never lose sight of the fact that many Chinese people share the views of their authorities, and that in Özil’s case they were genuinely offended. Zhe Ji, director of RedLantern, and who works for the Premier League, often reminds his clients that his country’s Football Association has total control over the league and over each individual player. The Chinese fans are amazed, even angry, when they see Western players disrespecting that discipline, because they don’t know that things work differently here. And hence the image of a former hero can fall to pieces.

There was a very similar case involving the NBA, with much greater repercussions, because basketball is one of the most popular sports in China, much more than football. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets posted a tweet supporting the protests in Hong Kong against its assimilation into the Chinese regime. Two of the team’s sponsors, footwear brand Li Nung and Shanghai Pudong bank immediately cancelled their contracts. Editorials appeared in the Chinese media arguing that the country’s basketball fans had been offended. Morey stepped back, acknowledging in a new tweet that he had spoken without being properly informed, basing his words on hearsay, and that he has now changed his mind about what was happening in Hong Kong. Too late. Joseph Tai, the multi-millionaire founder of Alibaba and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, claimed that the Hong Kong movement was a separatist one that was therefore threatening the country’s territorial integrity, and that the damage that Morey had caused to the NBA was going to take time to heal. Indeed, the spectacular viewing figures for last season would have been even higher still had the Chinese media not limited access to so many games.

It is not easy to have two hearts, not even for a team and for a league. A number of American fans were also offended, but in their case because Morey took back his words. Turkish fans of Arsenal expressed their discontent at their team’s treatment of Özil. The fact is that when the decision is made to gain a foothold in the Asian giant, one must be very aware of both the limitations for doing so, and of the impact that our actions will have on the fans in each continent.

Martín Sacristán


Building the future of the sports industry