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Man United, Lionel Messi biggest digital presence in China - study

Manchester United, Lionel Messi and the Bundesliga are leading the way amongst Europe-based football entities in China, according to the latest study commissioned on engagement with the game in the world's most populous nation.

The annual Red Card survey's China Digital Football Awards, conducted by China-based digital agency Mailman, highlighted the trio as the field leaders in digital engagement in the country as foreign operations seek to capitalise on the continued growth of the globe's second largest economy.

China's unique social media landscape, where sites such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked by what is known as "The Great Firewall," has witnessed huge expansion in recent years, with China-focused platforms such as Weibo and WeChat dominating the market.

Manchester United emerge as the most popular European club in China based on their number of followers on Weibo and WeChat, according to the survey, with the Old Trafford club well clear of second-placed Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in third. Arsenal and Liverpool were fourth and fifth respectively.

The report says United's greatest strength lies in their use of the weChat platform, with engagement on that platform three times greater than their nearest rival, Real Madrid. The report on the club's Europa League win over Ajax was the most-read article on weChat ever, the report says.

Manchester United are the most popular European club in China according to the Red Card survey’s China Digital Football Awards
Manchester United are China's most popular club, according to the China Football Digital Awards.

"With over 107m followers, China is one of Manchester United's most important markets and we have a long history of innovation and fan engagement in the region," Phil Lynch, Manchester United's CEO of Media, said.

"Through data analysis, geo-specific content creation and on-the-ground activities, we continue to be the most followed football club on China's major social media platforms: Sina Weibo and WeChat.

"We are honoured to receive the Red Card award for the second consecutive year and we are excited about the ongoing opportunities to innovate and build our brand, allowing our fans in China to interact with the club and our products."

Messi, meanwhile, took top honours amongst players with the Barcelona man benefitting from a relaunch of his social media channels in May to outstrip great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who was second. Anthony Martial of Manchester United and France was a surprise third-place finisher, with Paul Pogba fourth and Wayne Rooney fifth.

Lionel Messi is the most popular player in China according to the China Football Digital Awards
Lionel Messi came out on top over Cristiano Ronaldo as China's most popular player.

The Bundesliga retained its position as the leading European league, outstripping runners-up the Premier League and La Liga, which was placed in third. The German competition has topped the survey in each of the last four years, with the league lauded for its Dream Campaign.

"It is a great honour for the Bundesliga to be awarded as #1 European League for the fourth consecutive year," Robert Klein, CEO of the Bundesliga, said. "It shows that 'Football as it is meant to be' is celebrated in the entire world and that we found a way to share our passion with the Chinese fans."

Bundesliga sides Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were praised for their live streaming events and use of technology respectively, with Bayern also credited for the campaign conducted during their China tour last year. Arsenal won best sponsorship activation.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch

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