China’s tennis growth is impressive – but stats are still wrong

The growth in women’s tennis has been one of the great China stories – in sport or elsewhere – in recent years. Li Na was the obvious catalyst, and in particular her 2011 French Open win, but much of the credit has to go to the WTA’s CEO, Stacey Allaster. This excellent profile by a former colleague of mine tells you everything you need to know about Allaster, who got the top job in women’s tennis in 2009. 0127811074418700

China will have five WTA tournaments from next year – Shenzhen, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Beijing and Hong Kong – with another three lower-level tournaments, and Asian tennis got a huge boost with the news that the season-ending WTA Championships will move from Istanbul to Singapore from 2014 in a five-year deal.

Allaster spoke to the BBC this week in an awkwardly edited interview featuring question lobs such as:

“Has the success of China’s Li Na, who won the French Open Championships, helped in the popularity of tennis in Asia?”

Er, yes.

Allaster spoke about how broadcast coverage is up 100% in Asia, while viewership is up 60% – both phenomenal stats – but then came this:

“The one stat that continues to blow me away is social media. Globally the WTA has 70 million fans following women’s tennis. 40% come from China.”

Regular readers will know by now that my patented Questionable China Numbers alarm immediately started to ring, so I decided to look into the numbers. Here are the women’s Top 10 players and their Twitter followings:

  1. Google And T-Mobile Celebrate The Launch Of Google Music At Mr. Brainwash Studio In Los Angeles - Magenta Carpet ArrivalsSerena Williams – 4,407,751
  2. Victoria Azarenka – 380,455
  3. Li Na – n/a
  4. Maria Sharapova – 706,962
  5. Agnieszka Radwanska – 53,873
  6. Petra Kvitova – 76,567
  7. Sara Errani – 43,576
  8. Jelena Jankovic – 74,131
  9. Angelique Kerber – 61,833
  10. Caroline Wozniacki – 569,387

Selected others:

  • Venus Williams – 1,051,214
  • Sloane Stephens – 78,821
  • WTA – 165,308

Those 12 accounts total 7,669,878. After the top players, there is a pretty significant drop-off, but let’s ascribe a total of 10 million to fans of women’s tennis on Twitter. Next here’s Facebook:

  1. seccpics-blogspot-com_maria-sharapova-pics005Serena Williams – 1,718,661
  2. Victoria Azarenka – 611,260
  3. Li Na – 114,119
  4. Maria Sharapova – 11,170,222
  5. Agnieszka Radwanska – 317,464
  6. Petra Kvitova – 198,786
  7. Sara Errani – 76,161
  8. Jelena Jankovic – 214,183
  9. Angelique Kerber – 109,325
  10. Caroline Wozniacki – 707,310

Selected others:

  • Venus Williams – 1,366,402
  • Ana Ivanovic 1,307,566
  • WTA – 1,147,299

Those 13 pages total 19,058,758 likes, with Sharapova accounting for more than half. Ditto comments from above about a drop-off after the top players, but Facebook followings on average are larger, so let’s ascribe a total of 25 million to fans of women’s tennis on Facebook. Next here’s Sina Weibo:


  1. Serena Williams – 62,534
  2. Victoria Azarenka – 759,619
  3. Li Na – 22,206,191
  4. Maria Sharapova – 1,652,302
  5. Agnieszka Radwanska – 100,932
  6. Petra Kvitova – 548,077
  7. Sara Errani – n/a
  8. Jelena Jankovic – n/a
  9. Angelique Kerber – n/a
  10. Caroline Wozniacki – 723,987

Selected others:

  • Peng Shuai – 437,549
  • Zheng Jie – 1,100,553
  • Yan Zi – 742,029
  • Ana Ivanovic – 110,675
  • WTA – 137,210

Those 12 accounts total 28,581,658. There is an even greater drop-off after the top players on Sina Weibo, since not too many other players even have an account, so let’s ascribe a total of 30 million to fans of women’s tennis on Sina Weibo.

That brings us up to a total of 65 million, out of the 70 million Allaster mentioned. It seems most likely that the remaining 5 million can be ascribed to Instagram, Tumblr, other sites and rounding errors, but the numbers are pretty much there.

Two problems are clear:

1. If you follow, say, Agnieszka Radwanska on Twitter, then there’s a pretty good chance you might also follow any or all of Serena, Azarenka, Sharapova, Wozniacki and others. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ve also liked some or all of that list on Facebook. Which means, of course, that the number of total fans on social media is likely massively inflated, due to individual fans following multiple players.

2. Secondly, we come to the China problem. As I have said many, many times, Sina Weibo numbers are not at all what they seem. The rule of thumb is to divide by ten to get a much closer estimate, but you also have the first problem that a Peng Shuai fan, for example, is likely also a fan of Li Na, Zheng Jie etc.

My divide-by-ten rule is not just something I’ve pulled out of thin air, but is taken directly from Sina itself. From a registered user base of 600 million, Sina said this month on its quarterly earnings call that daily active users are up to 60.2 million – a tenth of that registered user base – and a study by researchers at Hong Kong University earlier this year found that of those supposedly active users, a significant chunk were simply ‘lurking’, or reading, but not posting or re-posting. They found 57% of all accounts were completely blank (‘zombie’ accounts) and only 13% of the remaining 43% posted one or more messages per week.

All of which means that the 30 millions fans on Sina Weibo – and Li Na’s 22 million – are in reality nothing like. Yes, that still leaves millions of tennis fans in China, whose number is still growing, but it’s far more useful to look at numbers such as:

  • number of players
  • tournament revenue
  • TV numbers (though take these, too, with a sack load of salt)

If you’re still with me – and apologies for the long post – there’s an obvious reason why executives from all sports like to inflate their stats (or, at the very least, pass off clearly inflated third-party stats as gospel): attracting more cash from more sponsors. I would like nothing more than to see the continued growth of tennis in China, but let’s have an element of realism here, otherwise it could all come crashing down when the sponsors realize they’re paying a mark-up for nothing but hype.

4 thoughts on “China’s tennis growth is impressive – but stats are still wrong”

  1. Good write-up! Agree, inflating numbers is a general bad habit in China and detrimental in the long term as trust gets crushed. The same happens every winter in some nordic ski events in China, where one boasts of 20,000 or more participants when the real number is closer to 5000 and over 90% are university students who are told to take part. As always in China the total numbers look mightily impressive, but look again and the picture changes quickly.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it is a shame, and your point about the trust is a good one – instead of simply looking at the positive growth story, it ends up being a negative. It’s impossible to know if execs know they are pushing wrong numbers, or if they really believe them. Surely there is a disconnect between how big the fanbase apparently is and what that translates to in terms of attendance, merchandise, revenues etc?

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