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The Wu Lei Effect: Are Espanyol now big in China?

Andy Strong, sports client manager at digital agency Mailman, assesses the potential impact of the Chinese Super League's top scorer moving to La Liga.

by Andy Strong
The Wu Lei Effect: Are Espanyol now big in China?

The announcements, gossip and discussion brought about by the January transfer window always results in a significant spike in the digital performance of the various clubs, players and media organisations involved.

While this particular move may have failed to cause much of a stir throughout Europe, Chinese soccer was set alight this Monday as Chinese international and Chinese Super League (CSL) top goalscorer, Wu Lei made the switch from current champions Shanghai SIPG to La Liga side Espanyol, creating greater media buzz than any of the major moves in the current window so far.

The announcement drew an outpouring of well wishes, reluctant goodbyes and smug see-you-laters from neutral, SIPG and rival fans respectively - sentiment which helped drive a total engagement of 32,290 for the transfer announcement on Espanyol’s official Weibo channel. The club subsequently saw a 64 per cent increase in their Weibo following - adding over 34,000 fans to their account by Wednesday morning. The social gains were not limited to China, however, with the club’s Instagram account increasing its follower base by over 5,000 in the immediate aftermath of the transfer, while the announcement post on the same platform became their most engaged post this season with over 14,000 interactions.

Back in China, the announcement post on top soccer app, Dongqiudi, soared to more than 20,000 engagements, while the club amassed more than 1.8 million Weibo video views covering the transfer. To top things off, the player unveiling press conference saw over 2.5 million fans tune in to the live stream, despite taking place shortly before midnight on Tuesday.

The immediate impact of the transfer on e-commerce has also been palpable. Within 48 hours of the transfer being confirmed, over 1,600 jerseys bearing Wu Lei’s name had been sold via the official Tmall store of club’s kit supplier, Kelme. Add to this the more than 500 shirts sold through licensed Kelme stockists operating their own Tmall stores, as well as the sight of both Weibo and WeChat awash with examples of fans purchasing directly from the Espanyol global store, plus a notable number of Chinese fans based in Spain purchasing all manner of merchandise from the club’s brick-and-mortar store. It is clear that the overall sentiment from Chinese fans is one of support and hope that this transfer precedes a spate of similar moves from top Chinese talent to test themselves abroad.

The move also presents a huge opportunity for La Liga to make great inroads into China, with the player likely to be utilised heavily in the promotion of the league across its various Chinese digital channels. It will also come as a significant boost to DDMC and PP Sports, who hold the broadcast rights for La Liga and must be expecting to witness an increase in subscription numbers following the transfer. Much as CCTV benefitted dramatically from Yao Ming’s move and establishment as a star player in the National Basketball Association (NBA), PP Sports will view this as an opportunity to cement their status as the home of domestic and global soccer, with exclusive access to the best Chinese talent helping them spearhead this drive.

On the pitch, the player will be keenly missed by the team he departs - his 27 goals in 2018 fired SIPG to their first ever CSL league title and earned him the mantle of the league’s top goalscorer, a feat not achieved by a Chinese player since Li Jinyu back in 2007. This goal tally was also preceded by five years of topping the domestic scoring charts, putting him top of the league’s all-time scorers list with 102 goals over seven seasons in the division.

More recently, he was tasked with leading the line for China at the AFC Asian Cup, netting two well taken goals against the Philippines, despite picking up a shoulder injury in the opening game against Kyrgyzstan. While Chinese media suggested the player might face two month spell on the treatment table, the club on Wednesday announced that their medical team have deemed him fit enough to link up with his new teammates immediately. With his new side currently sat in 15th place in La Liga, the hope is now that he can work his way into the team and provide the attacking impetus to pull them further away from the bottom three.

Although the instant upswing in digital performance will no doubt be celebrated by the club, minutes on the pitch will certainly be the determining factor as to how fans in China view the move in the long term. Moves of this kind are viewed as much with cautious optimism for the overall development of the Chinese game as scepticism that this is a purely commercially driven deal, driven purely by Chinese owners and investors.

Recent examples of Chinese players in major European leagues have not ended well; Zhang Xizhe spent an unhappy spell in Germany with Wolfsburg, Zhang Chengdong made just one league appearance during his time at fellow La Liga side Rayo Vallecano, whereas 22-year-old and Zhang Yuning’s transfer to Premier League side, West Bromwich Albion was understandably beset with talk of the deal representing little more than a marketing exercise for the club’s property development business.

Given the immediate considerable influence on Espanyol’s digital performance, at present it would be easy to assume that history may repeat itself. It is now up to Wu Lei to ensure this is not his only legacy and establish himself in a major European league, for the first time since members of the famous 2002 World Cup ‘Golden Generation’ paved the way.