Until 2014, China measured its success in sports like you might expect. National goals were quantified primarily in terms of international competitions wins, gold medals, and number of elite athletes and coaches. But, that year, a government’s initiative re-oriented the Chinese sports industry with the goal to create an industry generating RMB 5 trillion (USD 730 billion) in annual revenue by 2025.
China’s State Council released the “Document 46,” which kicked off the widespread commercialization of sports in the country. With China’s sports industry valued in 2014 at around just RMB 386.6 billion (USD 66.1 billion), a mere 7.7% of the stated goal, the government began rolling out numerous initiatives to support and commercialize the sports economy including investment in athletic facilities and support for the manufacturing of sports products.
With the world’s largest population of mobile internet users, around 904 million users as of March, digital access to sports content birthed a new generation of Chinese sports fans who rely on a host of online platforms to consume and engage with sports content. According to a report from state media Xinhua, as of March 2020, the total number of users streaming sports online in China reached 213 million.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the attractiveness of large gatherings in stadiums, online channels have become even more important to sports fans in China. To learn more about this growing industry, here are the five top Chinese online platforms for sports lovers:
1. Tencent Sports
Tencent Sports, an independent business spun-off from social and gaming giant Tencent in 2014, is a go-to source for Chinese sports fans to stay up to date on domestic and international competitions. Through its app, fans can access live broadcasts, along with tons of news and information about global sports including the NBA and NFL.
The company is the exclusive streaming partner of the NBA in China since 2015, while it has been a strategic partner of American sports entertainment network ESPN since 2016. There are over 500 million NBA fans in China, making it the US basketball league’s largest overseas market by some margin.
In July 2019, Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent (HKG: 0700) signed an extension with the NBA to broadcast through the 2024-25 season. The non-exclusive expanded cooperation will see NBA programming broadcast on platforms including QQ.com, Tencent Sports, Tencent News, Tencent Video, QQ, Weixin, and Weishi.
Tencent Sports, given its parent company’s DNA in gaming, is also an active player in the e-sports broadcast landscape, one of the fastest-growing sports in China. In July of 2019, Tencent signed a deal to be the official distributor of the NBA 2K League, an e-sports competition based on the popular basketball video game.
2. PP Sports
PP Sports is a division of Chinese conglomerate Suning (SZ:002024) and one of the leading online platforms for sports in China, boasting over 6 million paying subscribers as of September 2019, with an annual membership starting at around RMB 998 (USD 144.21).
As the domestic rights-holder of the Chinese Super League (CSL), China’s top soccer league, the platform attracted a total of 1.6 billion views over the 240 fixtures in the 2019 season, resulting in an average viewership per match of 6.66 million, up 12.1% from 2018.
PP Sports has started to livestream the current CSL season, which began on July 25, for free, with the goal of boosting traffic, according to 36Kr. The platform currently has around 78.8 million monthly active users.
The platform also holds the lucrative rights to a slew of overseas soccer leagues including the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, the German Bundesliga, and the Italian Serie A. This April, PP Sports, recognizing the demand for soccer-related content during the pandemic, signed an agreement with European soccer content Dugout to provide more offerings to Chinese users.
PP Sports’ deal with the English Premier League will grant the platform exclusive streaming rights for three years, beginning in the 2019/2020 season.
In June of 2019, PP Sports signed a multi-year agreement with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to offer wrestling content to Chinese customers as video-on-demand service.
3. Sina Sports
Sina Sports, founded in 1998, stands out in the online sports media space as it can leverage Sina Weibo (NASDAQ: WB), the microblogging site, where Sina Sports’ official account has nearly 24 million followers. Sina Sports has a variety of content including highlights, news, live events, and analysis.
The platform holds the broadcast rights to over 90 sports properties, including the Professional Golf Association Tour (PGA), the Championship, Wimbledon, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the National Basketball League of Australia.
In 2016, soccer club Manchester United signed an exclusive deal with Sina Sports to broadcast the club’s own Manchester United TV channel to the over 108 million Manchester United fans in China.
The company also focuses on developing its own offline events for sports in China, and in 2014, launched the Sina Golden League, a three-on-three amateur basketball league in China that now covers 185 cities across 30 provinces, and has attracted 120,000 players and 30,000 teams.
Sina Sports took the same model and went global in 2018 when it launched the Sina Elite League three-on-three basketball tournament, inviting international teams to compete in a three-day event in Guangzhou.
CCTV-5, part of state-media platform China Central Television (CCTV), is the national broadcaster dedicated to sports, which debuted in 1995. The broadcaster has evolved over the years to embrace the era of mobile internet, launching a free-to-stream mobile app carrying the same name.
The platform brings a host of international sporting competition to Chinese fans like the Olympics and Asian Games, along with domestic leagues like the Chinese Basketball Association, the Chinese Super League, and overseas tournaments like the English Premier League. Over 25 million Chinese viewers tuned in through CCTV-5 to watch the 2019 NBA finals.
With nearly 24 million followers on Weibo, the state media corporation also boasts CCTV-5+ as their secondary sports channel, akin to ESPN’s ESPN2.
According to CCTV-5’s 2017 viewership report, most broadcasted sports were soccer, accounting for 23% of airtime, basketball with 16%, and winter sports with 10%.
The network signed a deal to transmit the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Alibaba-backed Alisports was launched in 2015 as a full-service platform targeting Chinese sports fans. However, the company has struggled to find its niche within the industry. Alisports’ late entry to the sports business meant that it does not have broadcasting rights and does not compete for media copyright with other big players.
In addition to sports video content and news on the app, Alisports’ users can digitally check-in to gyms or fitness studios, purchase sportswear through its integration with Alibaba’s e-commerce ecosystem, and even find other users nearby to play sports. As Alisports is integrated with Ant Group’s Alipay, facial recognition technologies can be used to access enabled fitness facilities, with the app acting as the digital access point and payment portal.
In 2018, Alisports secured USD 191 million in a Series A funding round led by Yunfeng Capital which valued the company at USD 1.27 billion. At the same time, Alisports acquired Ledongli, a fitness app with over 55 million users at the time of the deal, which provides fitness courses as well as some designated offline facilities for working out.
The same year, Alisports debuted a “calorie bank” feature allowing users to earn rewards for working out which could be turned into cash usable for purchases on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms like Taobao and Tmall. As of October 2019, over 14 million people had registered for the program in less than a year since its introduction.
Sports in China see digital future
With the majority of China’s professional sports teams and athletic infrastructure concentrated in the country’s most populous urban areas like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, many sports fans across the country have no other option than to tune in via online digital platforms.
Coupled with Chinese fans’ growing appetite for sports, the country’s largest platforms are poised to expand their viewerships and user bases. While it’s impossible to say which sport or company will remain on top, it’s clear that sports will have an integral part in the content matrices of Chinese major entertainment companies.