When China’s Wu Lei made his debut for Spanish La Liga side Espanyol back in January, his 12-minute cameo apparently drew in 40 million fans back home. This was on top of the 350 million that had seen his unveiling as an Espanyol player days before. Since then the peddling of these huge numbers has died down somewhat, which is odd given that it was only a couple of weeks ago that he faced Leo Messi and Barcelona, the player and team that have been claimed to be the most popular on the mainland. The Catalan club celebrated the start of the Year of the Pig in February with a statement of their success in China but did it contain a few porkies? “The work carried out in recent years has led to the creation of a solid community of followers in China. Studies show that FC Barcelona have great acceptance among Chinese sports fans. Barca are the best-known sports team in China (56 per cent) ahead of Premier League teams and sides from the NBA and the NFL.” If they are the best-known team of any sport then surely they might fit in among the most popular clubs? Not according to the European Union’s SME Centre and their guidelines entitled “The Football Industry in China” published by Enterprise Ireland last month. Its opening paragraph is a fascinating insight into what message is being broadcast outside of China on the success of European football clubs on the mainland. “With a total population of 1.38 billion, China is estimated to have as many as 300 million football fans, a large number of whom support European football clubs,” it begins, before name-checking the country’s most famous football fan, Xi Jinping. “Real Madrid CF has 127 million supporters in China, Manchester United FC has 107 million, Inter Milan and AC Milan both have 106 million, and FC Bayern Munich has 90 million.” As many as 300 million football fans, but a cumulative total of 536 million fans for just those five clubs – and no mention of Barcelona. La Liga has said that the Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona has a potential global audience of 650 million. Surely 127 million Real Madrid fans in China makes this a conservative estimate? Unless this number does not mean what it appears to. Either what constitutes a “fan” is not what we traditionally think or the numbers are not what they seem. [BREAKING NEWS] Barça will be going to Japan and China for the 2019 summer tour. Asia, here we come! #ForçaBarça pic.twitter.com/7YFi2evD0B — FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 16, 2018 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> Take Manchester United’s claim to have 107 million followers in China. That is the club line and it has been for several years. United in fact had 108 million followers in 2012 when the club claimed to be the world’s best supported with a total global following of 659 million. The figure, based on research conducted by Kantar Media and paid for by the club, was pulled apart by Sporting Intelligence’s Nick Harris among others at the time. Manchester United banking on selling experience to China with deal for Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang centres Since it was published in 2012, the following has been repeated since, not wavering despite an increase in the Chinese population or the club’s relative lack of success in the intervening years. Interestingly, in a previous survey conducted in 2007 the club had 333 million followers, more than doubling in the five years until 2012 so it is even more curious that the number has not changed in the six years since. Perhaps the club should be congratulated on maintaining a consistency off the pitch that they have struggled for on it. Manchester United are an easy target but the rush to crack the China market is such that everyone has to play the game – and it goes beyond football. There were an estimated 30 million rugby fans in China this time last year. “It’s interesting to know that the largest number of fans in any single market is actually China, with 30 million rugby fans that we consider interested and very interested in rugby,” said World Rugby’s Brett Gosper during last year’s Hong Kong Sevens week. “We measure this through research and so on. It’s a good indicator, obviously it is not a precise tool but it gives an indication of emerging markets for us.” In American football, the New England Patriots have just had a “monumental” year in China, while the NBA claimed that 640 million Chinese watched the NBA over the 2017-18 season. The battle to crack China is there for all to see and there is likely enough China to go round but it can’t always be good news. These boasts add nothing. When it comes to Wu Lei, why lie? The fact he is playing in La Liga is a success in itself and the number of articles show there is interest. As for the European clubs, the number of them heading to China this summer is evidence that there is something there. Kobe Bryant still leads the way for NBA on Chinese social media but Jeremy Lin, Golden State Warriors on the rise When it comes to the other numbers surrounding sports in China, we would do well to remember they are prone to exaggeration. Just like singer Katie Melua’s claim that “there are nine million bicycles in Beijing”, it might sound good, but it is likely also too good to be true.