With the man regarded as the greatest quarterback in history among its ranks and having secured a record-equaling sixth Super Bowl this year, it is perhaps little wonder that the New England Patriots is the most popular NFL team in China – in terms of social media followers at least.
According to Mailman, a global sports digital marketing agency based in Shanghai which has been working closely with the Patriots, the franchise has enjoyed a “monumental” year in the world’s most populous nation, becoming the first NFL team to hit 500,000 followers on Weibo (a platform similar to Twitter which has around 300 million monthly active users).
At its current rate, the Patriots’ social growth is quicker than European soccer giants Manchester United and Barcelona as well as the majority of NBA clubs – although most of those teams have long had an established social media presence in China giving them less space in which to grow now.
Naturally, one of the most successful teams in NFL history will have a global appeal. But there is more to the Patriots’ Far East breakthrough than a steady stream of on-the-pitch triumphs and the pulling power of Tom Brady. The franchise has conquered China’s digital sphere and it has done so by being present and by being original.
Establishing a presence
To break into the lucrative Chinese market, the Patriots first established a presence on the country’s most popular social media platforms, WeChat (an app which started as China’s equivalent of WhatsApp but has developed into an ecosystem for multiple services and platforms) and the aforementioned Weibo.
Focus was put on creating daily content that would specifically be attractive to Chinese fans, graphics in Standard Mandarin, for example, and short video explainers on American Football.
“The Patriots this past season have set themselves apart from the rest of the league in terms of creating original Chinese content,” Gideon Clark, client director at Mailman, tells CNN.
“At the basic level it’s creating content that is localized for the fans, so obviously nothing goes out on the channels that is in English.”
’Tom Brady China Show’
Not only is Brady the most successful quarterback in Super Bowl history, the six-time winner is also an adept TV host too, starring in the eponymous “Tom Brady China Show.”
With 15.8 million total video views, the monthly series is the most viewed NFL club content series of all time in China, according to Mailman.
Having Brady, who only joined Twitter on April 1, engaging in fun activities and speaking a little Mandarin was, said Clark, a “big one” for the success of the show.
To make an impact in China, Clark said teams needed to find the “sweet spot” of having a star player on the roster who is committed to the team and interested in the country because the Chinese are obsessed with celebrity.
“Brady giving his time helped things, it helped his brand and it also helped the Patriots,” said Clark. “Not a lot of organizations can do that with their star player. Any club looking at the China market should try to leverage their star power as much as possible.”
Throughout the season, the franchise also broadcast an eight-episode series across digital platforms on Tencent Sports’ – an NFL partner which live streams games – and its own social media accounts, with each video being five to eight minutes long and consisting of historical and local fan stories, game previews and reviews.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has described China as a “priority market.” The league has played regular-season games in the UK and Mexico in recent years, but failed with plans to stage an exhibition game in Beijing in 2007 and 2009.
The Atlantic reported in March that an NFL game, possibly the season-opener, could be played in China in 2020. Even if that fixture does not involve the Patriots, the Super Bowl champion has the early foothold in the country.
American Football’s increased popularity
Though live games are shown at awkward times in China – there is a 15-hour time difference between Beijing and the Pacific Coast – and other sports, such as basketball and soccer, are more accessible and easier to play, more and more people are playing American Football.
The first adult American Football game was not played in China until 2011. And while there is only one professional American Football League in the country – The China Arena Football League (CAFL) which began in 2016 and comprises of six teams made up of Chinese and foreign players – participation numbers are projected to grow.
Two amateur leagues, the City Bowl and American Football League of China (AFLC), have a combined 1,750 players taking part across the country, while flag football, which has the same basic rules as American Football, has also proved popular at a grassroots level.
More than 300 teams, according to Mailman, took part in the most recent NFL China Flag Football Tournament held across 15 cities, a significant rise from the 36 teams which participated in 2014.
Additionally, 120,000 young Chinese are expected to have taken part in privately funded American Football training organizations in the country by 2020. With an average fee of $4,000 per year for a weekly program, learning how to play does not come cheap, but it does come with status for a growing, aspirational middle class.
According to NFL research, 30.9 million people in China are interested in the league and, based on a Kantar Research study, households with income of over $40,000 are over 2.5 times more likely to follow the NFL than the average Chinese sports fan.
“As people move into higher income brackets and have more disposable wealth and everybody’s life is getting better, they spend more time on health and wellness,” said Clark.
“Over the next five years there will be millions more people who will be interested in the NFL.”
The next step?
The NFL has some way to go before it can match the popularity of the NBA – which has 200 people in several different offices around the country working on promoting the sport – or the English Premier League and Bundesliga.
But having established a presence, with participation numbers on the rise and a 50% growth in the digital consumption of regular season games last season, the NFL is now entering what Clark describes as “phase two,” which is where the Patriots hope to capitalize even further.
“You’re aware of American Football, now you should follow a team and pick a favorite player. That’s the second level of engagement,” Clark said.
“They (the Patriots) have been successful for 18 years now and that is a very important ingredient for Chinese fans to pick a favorite team. You don’t have any direct cultural or geographic ties so you need that inspiration and often inspiration comes from seeing a team win.
“But besides that, the challenges for clubs is to inspire by other means. Maybe that’s not through success, maybe it’s some cultural connection with a city, a star player, some relevance to China,” Clark says.
With the Patriot’s already ahead of the rest in terms of followers and how they engage with Chinese fans, however, it will take an impressive force to overtake its early social media popularity.