Is it fans or followers? And how many does Manchester United have in China, again?

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

Accurate data is notoriously hard to come by in China, and partly that’s because people and organizations — from the official National Bureau of Statistics to self-interested parties — spin their own storylines by putting less-than-accurate numbers into the public domain.

In the China sports sphere, though, one club is in a different league when it comes to peddling propaganda: Manchester United.

According to the club, one in seven people on the planet — rising to almost one in five people in China — follow the club.

Just read that sentence again.

It’s just so clearly nonsense to anyone with a brain, but it’s a “fact” that the club has reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the U.S., where the club is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The four-sentence statement release details the “comprehensive” survey that polled 54,000 people — 0.0007 percent of the total it claims is interested in the club.

Put another way, survey producers Kantar found approximately 8,000 people from around the world who expressed some sort of interest in the club, before conjuring up their ludicrous conclusion.

In truth, the club has been at this nonsense for years.

A similar survey in 2012 concluded that United had 108 million “followers” in China — defined as anyone who took an interest in the club’s fortunes, including fans of all of United’s rivals, who wanted desperately to see them lose.

The only difference in this year’s edition is that the small print now distinguishes between “fans” — the smaller number of people who actually like the club — and “followers” — the much larger number that includes basically anyone who follows European soccer — but doesn’t, of course, provide numbers for each.

Credit the club for brazenness, though.

That initial survey has been discredited many, many times — particular with reference to its China claims — so the club and Kantar upped the specific number for China from 108 million followers in 2012 to 253 million today, out of a total population of 1.4 billion.

One in five.

Just think about that the next time you read an eye-raising China statistic: if it sounds too good to be true, it is.


In more domestically-focused football news, Chen Xuyuan — the former president of CSL club Shanghai SIPG — has completed the search to find a new president of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). He settled on…himself.

In May, Chen was appointed to lead the task force that would appoint the new CFA boss, though true to the standard operating procedure within Chinese sports, Chen was always the most likely candidate to come out on top.

Yáo Míng 姚明, for example, was also tasked with finding a new head of the Chinese Basketball Association before assuming the role himself.

Chen has, at least in the past few years, been involved in the football industry, so he’s presumably more knowledgeable than some of his predecessors, although the fact that he says he’s been repeatedly re-reading the country’s 50-point soccer reform plan from 2015 in a search for ideas is perhaps a little worrying.

Hopefully, CSL clubs will now be freer to pursue genuine commercial avenues — negotiating their own kit deals with manufacturers, for example, rather than being tied to a league-wide contract — in a bid to find that elusive concept known as profitability.

Most interestingly, though, is the candor Chen expressed in his first public remarks after taking up the position this week.

Much has been written about the naturalization of Brazilian striker Elkeson — now known as Aikesen — who has become the first foreign player without any Chinese heritage to be brought into the national team fold — and Chen sounds decidedly conflicted:

“Frankly speaking, I told the media that I don’t agree with introducing naturalized players without Chinese heritage last year when I was still working at Shanghai SIPG,” Chen noted. “However, as the CFA president, I have to think about the current situation.”

So, if Elkeson helps the Chinese national team with its short-term goal of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, then great, but don’t necessarily expect the naturalization process to continue even if he scores a hat-full of goals in the coming months.

Meanwhile, alongside Chen’s appointment, three CFA vice presidents were named, including former men’s national team coach Gao Hongbo and Sun Wen, a joint winner of FIFA’s Female Player of the Century award in 2000.

The third VP is FIFA Council member Du Zhaocai, who is deputy minister of China’s State General Administration of Sport.

He reports directly to sports minister Gou Zhongwen, who, despite what Chen or any of his new lieutenants might recommend, will ultimately have the final word.


Chinese swimmer Sūn Yáng 孙杨’s latest scandal continues to rumble on with news that his hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to rule on a case from last December will now happen at the end of October — at the earliest.

The hearing in Switzerland is set to be a public one at Sun’s request, with the swimming world certain to tune in after a series of controversies at the recent World Championships in South Korea, where fellow athletes protested Sun’s presence, given the doping cloud that surrounds him.

And in a bizarre recent twist, reports have said Sun could one day head up the Chinese Swimming Association after he became the first current athlete in China to hold an official rank, as the assistant division chief at the Zhejiang College of Sports.

It’s a strange career prospect for a swimmer who could face a lifetime ban from the sport if CAS rules against him and has made a habit throughout his career of making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But with three Olympic and 11 World Championship titles, Sun remains arguably China’s most well-known active athletes, and certainly one of the most successful.


In other news:

  • Dwyane Wade will replace Jeremy Lin on the TV show Dunk of China, with reports that NBA free agent Lin may end up in the CBA.
  • Outspoken Chinese MMA fighter sees his Weibo account deleted for the eighth time after posting about the protests in Hong Kong.
  • Volleyball legend Lang Ping, who has won volleyball gold for China as both a player and coach of the women’s national team, comes under fire after player Yang Fangxu receives a four-year ban for a doping violation.
  • The Beijing marathon is moved from its usual September date on the calendar until early November, due to preparations for the country’s 70th anniversary.


Highlight of the Week:

Check out China’s new $26 million wavepool at the Extreme Sport Training Center in Henan province. The pool is 700m long by 150m wide, and uses a combination of magnetic and electric power. It’s set to groom Chinese surfers of the future — but they’ll have to be patient: the pool can churn out a wave that’s three meters high and travels at 8m/sec, but works best if you wait up to 10 minutes between waves.

Hopefully it doesn’t turn into this:

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.