European soccer leagues have made a push for Chinese fans, and it seems to be working.
With Chinese fan favorite David Beckham at the helm, Manchester United was for a long time China’s favorite football club. Arguably the first widely recognized club from the league in China, the franchise’s popularity grew along with Beckham’s stardom. However, as the club’s standings in the English Premier League fall, so does its popularity.
According to a recent survey by Coventry University’s Center for the International Business of Sport, Arsenal has edged out Manchester United as China’s most popular football club. The survey, which was conducted online between the months of September and November, found that most of the 15,586 respondents identified themselves as fans of the London-based Arsenal and picked Germany as their favorite national team.
“Arsenal was a surprise,” the center’s head, Professor Simon Chadwick, said of the results. “Although, given that Chinese fans like the German national team, the fact that Ozil, Podolski and Mertesacker [all Germans] play for Arsenal makes the result rather less surprising.”
But with Arsenal sitting at the top of the table with 24 wins so far this season, the Gunners make it easy for 3,785 of the surveyed Chinese to root for them. On the other hand, with a disappointing season so far, Manchester United (NYSE:MANU) still managed to come in second in the survey, racking up 3, 210 votes, which is more than they can say of their performance on the field.
But this doesn't mean everyone is a fair-weather fan. Take Qin Jian, a 15-year ‘Gooner’ and founder of the Arsenal Fans Association of China, which boasts a membership of 600,000. He is happy to finally see his team being recognized by Chinese fans. “Arsenal’s fans will be happy when they hear the news,” he said telling the South China Morning Post, before adding, “but I think the survey might be a little one-sided.”
Qin is still very aware that among most Chinese, Arsenal still often takes the backseat to Manchester United, at least on Weibo. Manchester United has nearly a million more followers on its official microblog account at 2.1 million, compared to Arsenal’s 1.3 million. But the survey proved to be a win for the English Premier League and the sport in general, which won the title as the most favored national league with 7, 697, followed by the Spanish Liga and the Italian Serie A, with 3,910 and 3, 614 votes each, respectively.
Though China is a huge target market for soccer as a sport, the country’s troubled history with game-fixing at all levels has made it hard to legitimize the sport. Still, while China’s own league struggles to gain a consistent fan base, fans can at least count on their European counterparts.