U.S. Sports Fandoms in China: Why the NBA Leads the Pack

Sports analyst Mark J. Burns examines the current state of Western sports fandom in one of the world’s biggest markets
Graphic conveying U.S. sports fandom in China
August 01, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • About 1 in 4 Chinese adults (24%) said they are “avid” fans of the NBA, making it the country’s most popular U.S. sports league, compared with 19% and 17% who said the same about MLB and the NFL, respectively.

  • Global powerhouse soccer clubs Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are the most popular teams in the country, while the UEFA Champions League and Spain’s La Liga are the most popular soccer leagues.

  • The NHL and NFL are the two U.S. sports leagues with the biggest opportunity to broaden their appeal among Chinese adults.

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Nearly four years after the NBA’s relationship with China fractured — fallout from then-Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeting in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — things now seem just fine between the world’s most popular basketball league and one of the world’s biggest markets.

A new Morning Consult survey reveals the NBA is the most popular U.S. sports league in China, suggesting it has successfully weathered the storm of backlash in the country. Nearly one-quarter of Chinese adults (24%) said they are “avid” fans of the NBA. The survey also shows which American sports leagues are trailing behind. By comparison, 19% of Chinese respondents said they are avid fans of MLB, and 18% said the same of the PGA Tour.

The NBA Is the Most Popular U.S. Sports League in China

Share of Chinese adults who described themselves as “avid” fans of each of the following:
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Survey conducted June 20-27, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese adults with access to the internet, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

For now, basketball — including both the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association — continues to rule the day in China. It’s no surprise, then, that more than 40 principal NBA owners have over $10 billion invested in China, per an ESPN analysis from last year.

With the relationship seemingly repaired since the Morey controversy, it is time for the NBA, which launched NBA China in 2008 to conduct league business and secure corporate sponsors in the country, to strengthen its connection with the market even further. First, the NBA should keep a watchful eye on how its video content is resonating with fans through a new programming partnership with Ant Group, an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Second, the league should consider resuming playing games in China after nearly a five-year absence. Even more ambitious would be to stage the first-ever regular season game in China.

Other sports and leagues may have a tougher time establishing an audience in China, given lower interest across the board. But there’s still an opportunity to take a player-centric approach to marketing.

Soccer, basketball teams are the top choices among Chinese adults

About 1 in 3 Chinese adults (32%) said they are avid fans of Manchester United, making the Premier League side the most popular nonnative sports team in China, followed by La Liga’s Real Madrid (28%) and FC Barcelona (27%).

Soccer Powerhouses Have the Most ‘Avid Fans’ in China

Share of Chinese adults who described themselves as avid fans, casual fans or not fans of the following teams:
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Survey conducted June 20-27, 2023, among a representative sample of 349-411 Chinese adults with access to the internet, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Only one team that plays the other football, however, made the top 10: The Kansas City Chiefs landed at No. 10, making the three-time Lombardi Trophy champions China’s most popular NFL team.

The Los Angeles Rams are no strangers to the market either. They first created custom content for China in 2019 ahead of their Super Bowl LIII appearance, then secured China as their league-appointed international marketing territory in 2021. The Rams even broadcast preseason games in the country last year. Despite the continued investment, there’s still work to be done to increase the franchise’s popularity in China as it fell just outside the top 20 most popular sports teams, the survey found.

The data also revealed China’s most popular athletes, with two former Los Angeles Lakers tied at the top: The late Kobe Bryant and Yi Jianlian, who now plays for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, both earned favorability ratings of 79% among Chinese adults.

Bryant, who first visited China in 1998, helped grow the sport’s popularity via his long-standing love affair with the country, which culminated in a statue of the four-time MVP on the campus of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. With Nike relaunching Bryant’s signature sneaker and apparel brand on Aug. 24, the company should leverage its prodigious marketing resources to raise awareness in China of the line’s comeback.

Kobe Bryant, Yi Jianlian Top the List of Most Popular Athletes in China

Share of Chinese adults who said they have a favorable impression of the following athletes:
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Survey conducted June 20-27, 2023, among a representative sample of 224-297 Chinese adults with access to the internet, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-6 percentage points.

After Yi, Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry, new MLS signee Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar are the most popular active athletes, with 74% of Chinese adults saying they have a favorable impression of each star.

Brands with large marketing budgets hoping to better connect with Chinese consumers would be smart to partner with Curry or Messi. But our data also suggests that Asian athletes who have had more modest careers, like NBA journeymen Yi and Jeremy Lin, are actually more popular in China than many of the world’s active sports stars, providing a more cost-effective option for marketing with name recognition.

How the NFL should market the sport in China

Basketball may be king in China, but that’s not stopping the NFL’s pursuit of growth in the country.

Specific demographics at scale: Surveying thousands of consumers around the world every day powers our ability to examine and analyze perceptions and habits of more specific demographics at scale, like those featured here.

Why it matters: Leaders need a better understanding of their audiences when making key decisions. Our comprehensive approach to understanding audience profiles complements the “who” of demographics and the “what” of behavioral data with critical insights and analysis on the “why.”

The NFL introduced itself to China in the early 2000s, aiming to educate people in the country about an unfamiliar sport with complicated rules and terminology. The NFL hired a Chinese-based digital and social media agency in 2016 to build team pages on the popular microblogging site Weibo. In recent years, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have crafted social content strategies and devoted marketing efforts toward the still-untapped football market.

February’s Super Bowl suggested progress is being made. The livestream drew 6.2 million unique viewers in China, making it the most-watched Super Bowl in the country in the past six years.

Of course, there is an important caveat to doing business in China. Any U.S. sports league or team attempting to pursue financial opportunities there should know they risk opening themselves up to bad press given the country’s dismal human rights record. Most recently, last year’s Beijing Olympics took place under a cloud of scrutiny and criticism.

The NFL can likely handle the risk. If the league decides to invest more heavily in the Chinese market, it would be wise to lean further into the Chiefs, the most popular team in China thanks to its superstar quarterback: Per Morning Consult data, more than 3 in 5 Chinese adults (64%) said they have a favorable impression of Patrick Mahomes. The other active quarterback to tie Mahomes was the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, another charismatic star who, like Mahomes, is just entering the prime of his career. With the era of Tom Brady officially over, the league should amplify its next crop of young star quarterbacks as marketing opportunities arise in China.

A headshot photograph of Mark J. Burns
Mark J. Burns
Sports Analyst

Mark J. Burns previously worked at Morning Consult as a sports analyst.

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