Club-themed experience centres and a high-profile ‘Red Devil Messenger’ are helping Manchester United build on their established Chinese fanbase as the country celebrates the Lunar New Year.
The Old Trafford giants are one of the most popular sports teams in China, having first visited the region in 1975 and returned on tour as recently as 2016.
So important is the Chinese market that kit supplier Adidas produced a Chinese New Year range for United to help celebrate – and capitalise on – the Year of the Pig being ushered in on Tuesday.
Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wore the range in his press conference previewing Sunday’s match at Leicester, where the first team donned it for pre and post-match interviews, as well as well as walking out in the anthem jacket.
But it is in the fast-paced digital age where United are really attempting to make their mark in China.
The club is the most followed sports team on Chinese social network Weibo, with their figure of 9.3million followers around the same as Arsenal and Chelsea combined.
United were recognised as the most influential team online in China in 2017 and 2018 but dropped down to third in this year’s ‘Red Card’ report by Mailman. Real Madrid came top despite their Weibo account having 3.5million followers.
United are working to make in-roads in other ways in China, including the ‘Wake Up The Devil Inside You’ campaign run last year and tie-ups with celebrities.
Chinese singer and actor Lu Han was at last month’s Premier League win against Brighton – a trip that saw him meet the team and Solskjaer present him with a certificate confirming him as a ‘Red Devil Messenger’.
The club said that he “will remain close to the club and continue to show his passion and support for United in China” – an agreement that Football Paradise understands to be the first such ambassadorial role for the side.
As an example of Lu Han’s reach, his Weibo post saying “Ten years a fan, Lifelong a Red Devil!” in September 2015 broke his own record for the most comments on a post on the network. It now has more than 100 million comments.
That online push is being bolstered on the ground, with United understood to be lining up an #ILoveUnited fan event in China to make this the ninth straight year they have visited the country.
Then there are club-themed entertainment and experience centres that United last month announced they were opening throughout China in partnership with property developer Harves.
The first centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang are due to be completed by the end of 2020 and will help reach what the club calls their “100 million followers in China”.
Manchester United group managing director, Richard Arnold, said: “We’re very excited to be partnering with Harves on the Manchester United Entertainment and Experience Centres concept, offering our millions of Chinese fans the chance to experience the club in a new and innovative way.
“We first visited China in 1975 and we’re proud to have seen our fan base in the region grow and develop their passion for United over the years.
“This new concept will allow them to get closer to the club they love.”
While the exact number of fans in China is hard to quantify, it is understood that United account for half of the season TV pass subscriptions in the country.
MUTV was launched in the region in 2016 working with Sina and the club is still exploring new ways to engage with fans, meaning Marouane Fellaini’s move to Shandong Luneng is unlikely to be the last business done with China this year.
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