Global sports brands meet backlash in effort to cross pollinate with Chinese entertainment stars

2019-02-20 08:39:26China Daily Editor : Jing Yuxin ECNS App Download

A growing trend in sports sees high profile major leagues seeking to reach young people in China by leveraging the popularity of Chinese entertainment stars.

Such cooperation can sometimes backfire when hardcore supporters and critics react negatively to a sports property's choice of representative.

Last month, 21-year-old Chinese pop idol Cai Xukun, who has more than 21 million followers on Chinese twitter-like social media platform Weibo, was announced as the NBA's Chinese New Year celebration brand ambassador, marking the first time that a Chinese celebrity has been featured in such a campaign.

While the NBA sought Cai's popularity to expand its larger Chinese fan-base, his non-macho appearance struck a marked contrast with the NBA's traditionally masculine basketball players.

In addition to full-hearted wishes from Cai's loyal fans, many serious sports fans expressed hostility online.

"What Cai represents is totally different from what the NBA means to us," reads one post on Chinese basketball portal Hupu.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise and co-director of Center for Sports Business at University of Salford Manchester, said, "the convergence of sport and entertainment often touches a raw nerve among sports fans, especially those afraid of the excessive commercialization now infiltrating some sports."

In seeking to successfully align brands, Chadwick said it is important that marketers establish the synergies between them.

"For instance, if a team is perceived as being strong and the entertainer is perceived as being weak, consumers will often encounter cognitive dissonance. That is, there will be inconsistencies in the way they view the relationship," he added.

Chadwick emphasizes the importance of understanding the personalities of both brands. "If a sports club is big, loud, ostentatious and successful, then there will be problems if the entertainer's characteristics appear to be at odds with the club's."

Earlier this month, Lu Han, once dubbed the "Chinese Justin Bieber", was named as a "Red Devil Messenger" by Manchester United.

His passion for the Reds is well documented by the fact he holds a Guinness World Record for the most comments on a Weibo post. His "Ten years a fan, Lifelong a Red Devil!" post in September 2015 broke his own record, and has received more than 100 million comments to date.

United is the one of the most popular sports teams in China, and was named as the number one club online in 2017 and 2018, but dropped to the third after Real Madrid and FC Bayern Munich in this year's Red Card Report by the Mailman Group.

In the fast-paced digital era, United is keen to bolster its popularity in China by teaming up with influential key opinion leaders. Lu, who has Weibo followers of more than 59 million, came as a natural choice.

The ongoing convergence of sport and entertainment brands is likely to intensify rather than abate, critics say, but argue that it is debatable whether this is a sustainable approach, and say marketers should be aware of who contributes most to their revenues.

"Is it those who want stars, celebrities and entertainment from their sports, or is it those who buy tickets to a game and want to stand on the terraces watching their favourite team?" Chadwick said. "Sports should be careful not to alienate their core customers as they pursue perceived lucrative new revenue streams."

While Manchester United and the NBA won't have enjoyed the backlash by Chinese sports fans, Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sportswriter who edits the China Sports Insider website, said he does not see a "big issue", as the aim of these partnerships is to tap into new demographics.

"One big question is whether Cai's fans will become long-term NBA fans, or whether non-sports fans of Lu will be fans of Man Utd, respectively, a year from now," he said. "But with each side basking in the perceived coolness of the other side, it's an arrangement that appears to work, and I would expect to see more of this in the future."

The United States' National Football League, known as the NFL, has been embracing entertainment partnerships to good effect in recent years.

Chinese pop star Kris Wu partnered with the NFL last year, becoming the first ever Chinese artist to perform at a promotional event for the Super Bowl, the league's annual championship game, with Wu reportedly initiating the partnership himself.

"Wu valued the association he would get from tying himself to one of the world's biggest sporting events and the NFL saw huge engagement numbers in China from a new demographic.

"His fans may not have tuned into to watch the big game, but they were certainly more aware of the event after Wu's performance the previous day. So this is an approach that clearly seems to work for both sides," Dreyer explained.

However, Dreyer cautioned that sports brands must tread carefully when selecting ambassadors, as today's hero can quickly turn into tomorrow's villain.

"Most brands quickly dumped Tiger Woods, for example, once news broke about his many affairs, and, whether or not brands decide to stick with their athletes in times of crisis — as some did with badminton star Lin Dan when he had a very public affair — it puts brands in a very tough position, because none of them will want to answer uncomfortable questions," he said.

Related news


Most popular in 24h

MoreTop news


Travel News
Travel Types
Bar & Club
CNS Photo
Learning Chinese
Learn About China
Social Chinese
Business Chinese
Buzz Words
Special Coverage
Back to top Links | About Us | Jobs | Contact Us | Privacy Policy
Copyright ©1999-2019 All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.