Manchester United’s fishy China numbers

The world’s most valuable sports franchise just got a little richer yesterday after signing deals with two Chinese companies, drinks maker Wahaha and China Construction Bank.

The deals themselves look straightforward enough: Wahaha becomes Manchester United’s first official soft drink sponsor, while CCB will produce the official Man Utd-branded credit card in China. But it was something from the club’s official press release that struck me, specifically the part where United’s commercial director Richard Arnold claims the club has a following of 108 million in China.

108 million fans? Now hold on a minute… At a rough estimate, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona would all claim to be about as popular in China, then there are the second-tier clubs (in terms of popularity in China) such as Arsenal and Chelsea, plus all the Italian teams (AC Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan etc), and that’s before we even get to German football, which appears to be remarkably popular in China at the moment. Seems we’re quickly running out of Chinese citizens to divide up – and that’s a pretty hard thing to do when you start with a 1.3 billion pie.

Not surprisingly, the AP report on the deals turns the 108 million into “millions of fans”. And even that might be a stretch given that the club’s official Weibo page (UPDATE: this is NOT an official page, as the club doesn’t have one – strange considering all those followers/fans, no?) currently has a little over a quarter of a million, significantly behind Liverpool’s, by the way.

I’m still waiting for confirmation from Man Utd on how it reached those numbers (UPDATE: Man Utd replied to me here), but this report from Align Sport singles out Kantar Media as the culprit. They released a report last year commissioned by none other than Manchester United. Sample size: 54,000 people. Conclusion: Manchester United has 659 million fans.

Turns out that, according to Kantar Media, you’re allowed to support more than one club, which as any proper football fan knows is just not cricket.

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