Fifa World Cup: China viewing figures skyrocket as Tencent piggybacks on TV ratings wave

Russia 2018 has captured the imagination of football fans in China in a manner that perhaps no World Cup has managed before, with Tencent cashing in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 12:03am

In a studio nestled in the heart of Mosfilm – “Russia’s Hollywood”, the taxi driver helpfully explains – former France striker David Trezeguet lounges on a sofa discussing the finer details of the challenge facing Didier Deschamps’ squad in Sunday’s World Cup final against Croatia.

A World Cup winner alongside Deschamps in 1998, the ex-Juventus and Monaco forward has joined an illustrious band of former players and coaches to stream in and out of the set over the last month, offering their insights for Chinese online outfit Tencent.

Arsene Wenger, Gary Lineker, Jurgen Klinsmann, Carles Puyol and Paolo Maldini are just some of the icons who have helped feed China’s insatiable appetite throughout the last month, previewing and reviewing games for the digital giant’s multiple platforms.

Russia 2018 has captured the imagination of football fans in China in a manner that perhaps no World Cup has managed before, even when Bora Milutinovic led the country to the finals on that one and only occasion back in 2002.

“People in China are always crazy about the World Cup but for our fans it’s still much, much better than four years ago because of the time difference,” says veteran commentator Su Dong. “It’s only five hours so that’s why there have been millions of viewers watching every match.

“They’ve been watching Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia and asking: what about our Chinese football? They always make this kind of comparison and we’re already looking forward to the next World Cup.”

The appetite for the World Cup from Chinese consumers watching matches on television and online has been significant. From official broadcasts to those like Tencent trying to piggyback off the event’s popularity, ratings have soared.

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According to figures released by Fifa, 14 of the top 20 largest audiences globally during the group stage of the competition were in China, with the nation dominating the table when taking into account one-minute reach figures, which is the maximum number of viewers during any given minute of a game.

Globally the most-watched clash of the group stage – not surprisingly given the profile of Barcelona star Lionel Messi – was Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Iceland, when 44.74 million viewers tuned in to watch CCTV-5’s coverage of the game at Spartak Stadium. Brazil’s win over Costa Rica, played during prime time in China, pushed it close, according to figures from CCTV.

Those numbers leave the rest of the sporting competition in the distance, with last year’s most-watched event in the nation China’s World Cup qualifying meeting with Iran, when 31.13 million viewers tuned it.

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By the end of the group phase, Fifa have claimed, viewing figures in China had already surpassed those achieved in 2014, when the 11-hour time-difference worked against broadcasters and fans seeking to follow the tournament.

A total Chinese audience of 623 million watched matches during the Brazil World Cup, while 815 million had already viewed the tournament before the start of the knockout phase and that success is spilling over into other areas, with companies such as Tencent benefiting too.

“Tencent don’t have the rights but they have a lot of channels and access to users,” says Su, who has been working for the digital outlet throughout Russia 2018. “For new media, Tencent is a benchmark for the China market.

“Earlier in the tournament we had a two-hour pre-game show and the viewers were over 10 million. I couldn’t believe it. That’s only for a pre-game show. It’s incredible.

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“The fans want to know what’s going on in Moscow, what’s happening and they want as much information and the story of the World Cup.

“They want to know from people like me, as a commentator for many years, what is going on because they’re curious about the World Cup.

“When the match starts then they tune in to the other channels, but before that they want to hear the story and get the information from the frontier from people like us.”

Fifa is also, belatedly, tapping into the social media market in China. Less than four months before the finals kicked off in Moscow, the game’s governing body launched accounts on weibo and WeChat that have predictably experienced significant growth in a short period.

Fifa’s World Cup weibo channel has already outstripped the Bundesliga in terms of popularity while it was also the fastest growing sports organisation account. Fifa were also the sports body that was most engaged with online throughout the last four months, surpassing the NBA.

All of this comes despite China’s national team missing out on a place in the finals yet again and Su insists the failings of Marcello Lippi’s team do little to dampen the enthusiasm for the game, even if there is a lingering sense of frustration. He believes few, though, will throw their weight behind the Chinese Super League once the World Cup ends on Sunday.

“The people are enjoying the World Cup but after that I really don’t know what will happen,” he says. “Our league will restart right after the final and there have been cup matches going on during the World Cup.

“We have World Cup fans, but only World Cup fans. We have so many people talking about the game, people watching from 2am, 4am, no matter what.

“For Chinese football we hope the game will come up, but there is a long way to go. In 2026, by that time we could have eight places for Asia and I just hope China will not be ranked ninth.

“After a game for our national team, the fans criticise the team and they say they won’t watch the team again, but they always come back. And if the China national team is coming to Qatar in four years’ time the whole country will be occupied by Chinese football fans. You can believe that.”