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How the rise of niche sports highlights China's changing consumer landscape

Thomas Piachaud

Director, Brand and Marketing Consulting, Shanghai

Brands 09.12.2019 / 17:24

CN niche sport 2 col

Across new and emerging sports, we see a consistent theme, sports that focus on discipline and strategy, but at the same time facilitate new friendships and connections.

The economic rise of China is well documented, however alongside this economic shift has been a shift in consumer behaviour and attitudes. With a rapidly growing middle class, China today is not the China of the past. Looking at our data from Kantar's proprietary Global Monitor which allows us to uncover and analyse consumer trends over time, we can see shifting consumer perceptions towards physical and emotional health.

EN Satisfactory Trend Of Health 

While five years ago, both were increasing steadily, we now see a dip in the satisfaction, showing a higher expectation toward achieving satisfaction across both. Where before stereotypical students crammed day and night for the Gaokao and office workers were in the office until late passed sunset, now with increased access to a digital world of knowledge and greater access to facilities and coaching we have begun to see an emergence of smaller sports.

Over the course of the Olympics, China has won 16 Olympic medals from fencing (including four golds). However, as a sport it would rarely receive any attention beyond the four year Olympic cycle. Fencing has undergone explosive growth, with registered fencers growing from 5,000 to 250,000 in the past 10 years, most of them students, according to Xinhua News Agency. This growth has been fuelled by the perception of the sport as a good method to train the body and brain as well as a strong focus on discipline.

Chinese Fencing Kids

Students of Xincheng Primary School, Hefei City, Anhui Province, join a group fencing performance on October 19, 2016.

A similar story is happening in golf. The number of registered junior golf players (between 6 and 18) jumped from more than 400 to 34,000 in 2017, according to General Administration of Sport of China, with the government planning to boost the number of registered junior golf players to 100,000 by 2022. The number of games for junior golf players has also swelled from about 20 a year in 2013 to 270 in 2017 showing the deep level of involvement that players are having in the sport.

Chinese Golf Kids

Students of Huakang Primary School, Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, practice golf after class on December 20, 2018.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) brings fighters from all martial art styles to compete inside the ring, has seen an emergence, with regular programming on local Chinese TV stations as well as leading video apps. The crowning of Zhang Weili as UFC strawweight champion on August 31, 2019, serves to highlights the development and the future of the sport in China, with Weili serving as a role model to future fighters.

Zhang Weili Winning

Zhang Weili wins her first UFC strawweight champion on August 31, 2019 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, China.

Investment is now being realised, with US-based UFC opening a new mega fight centre in Jing'an, Shanghai and One Championship setting up offices in Shanghai and Beijing, it is clear that MMA leagues also see the opportunity in resonating deeply in China.

The growth of MMA is also fuelling interest in other martial arts, with higher participation rates in boxing, muay thai, wrestling and jiu jitsu. "The diversity of people who are giving martial arts a try in China today is amazing," said Saulo Melo of Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu Shanghai. “There are so many more women and kids wanting to get involved, and parents are becoming even more supportive as they are seeing the benefits from the training both physically and mentally."

Another sport looking toward China to fuel growth is American football. With a now blossoming local league, a video streaming partnership between the NFL and QQ Video and rumours of NFL games to be hosted in China in the future, the sport is catching on. "American football is growing in China as parents want their kids to be active, find new friends and at the same time learn discipline and strategy, in a way it’s the perfect sport for the new China," Matt Smith, head coach of the Shanghai Wolves a team for 5 to 19-year olds highlights.

Along with the league aligning its focus towards China, we have also seen an emergence of brands and athletes capturing the opportunity to resonate with a new target audience in China and unlock business growth outside of the sports original market. Tom Brady (in partnership with Under Armour), Russel Wilson (in partnership with Nike), Adrian Peterson and DeShaun Watson have all visited the market in recent years, raising both their own and their sponsors profile. Exposure to big time sports stars are creating closer bonds with consumers by bringing new experiences that align with passion points, offering a great vehicle to build awareness, consideration and loyalty.

Tom Brady In CN

Tom Brady joins a commercial event in Shanghai in June, 2017.

Implication for brands:

Across these new and emerging sports, we see a consistent theme, sports that focus on discipline and strategy, but at the same time facilitate new friendships and connections. They are helping create a more well-rounded Chinese consumer, with new knowledge and new experiences to share with others.

The time is now for brands to play their role in this growth. There is opportunity across multiple categories, whether you are a sports drink brand, a supplement brand, a leisurewear brand or sports accessory brand. Uncovering the unique consumer behaviours and trends that will align with how they spend their time and money. For brands that are able to capture the opportunities in the early stages, there is huge potential for rapid growth of relevance, equity and financial uplift to be realized.

Source: Kantar

Editor's notes

* Source of photo: VCG China;

* Amanda Niu, Consulting Senior Analyst of Kantar, also contributed to this article;

* To reach the author, or to know more information, data and analysis of sports marketing consultancy in China, please contact us.

* Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive news alerts.

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Across new and emerging sports, we see a consistent theme, sports that focus on discipline and strategy, but at the same time facilitate new friendships and connections.

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