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2022-12-28 09:11:45

Every four years, the internet goes crazy for the World Cup and crowds get together to watch the games. But Zhang Hang, a fervent soccer fan, doesn’t share the same excitement and feels lonely instead. He has struggled to find other fans online to discuss the games on a deeper level.

People on his WeChat suddenly talk about soccer only when there is a major event like the World Cup. He sees them as “fake fans.” Things don’t look great on Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — either. While it holds the broadcasting rights of the World Cup, it has devolved into a place for memes and parodies. Online sports forums that he used to visit are flooded with posts comparing football stars like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo or mourning the retirement of some of the greatest players of all time.

Zhang can’t help but reminisce about Baidu Tieba, a Reddit-like forum popular in the 2010s. There, soccer fans came together and formed communities for each team or even a particular player. After Weibo and WeChat became more popular and drew off most of the Baidu Tieba user base, access to information has become more diversified but also fragmented. Weibo and WeChat serve as one-stop shops for users to look up anything, but not to found a community. Platforms that provide specific content and functions for a target group — like Hupu and Dongqiudi for soccer fans — have thus emerged and earned loyal users.

But these platforms, even with more specific content, have failed to provide an engaging environment for high-quality discussion. Instead, many longtime users rue the decline in a sense of belonging, content, and even quality of the users. Over time, users have participated less in discussion and become “lurkers.”

Perhaps the sports business is just not that lucrative. Hupu and Dongqiudi had hoped that major sporting events would drive traffic to boost their profits, but not even the World Cup seems to have helped.

VCG

VCG

Finding the right place

Since the World Cup kicked off in Qatar, one of the first high-profile games was Saudi Arabia’s upset against Argentina. When Zhang scrolled through his WeChat Moments, he was overwhelmed by people’s sympathy for Messi and their rants about the unfairness dealt to Argentina. “I never knew so many of my friends on WeChat are Argentina fans,” Zhang quipped.

A few days later, when it was time for Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo to show up, everyone on his WeChat Moments rooted for Portugal. “It’s not surprising that people who don’t usually watch soccer only care about Messi and Ronaldo,” said Zhang. “After all, it’s their last time to play in the World Cup.”

There’s very little room for rational discussion. When a player wins, people think he’s amazing; when he loses, he’s deemed worthless.

What he found especially embarrassing was people waiting for Italy to show up. “Do they really not know that Italy didn’t even make it to the group stage this year?” he said.

Like millions of Chinese, Zhang watched the games on Douyin, but he found that the discussion had nothing to do with soccer at all. On the day of the opening match, the trending topic on Douyin was a 16-year-old Qatari royal showing visible disappointment over his national team’s loss. The quadrennial World Cup had provided entertainment for the public, which Zhang understood, but he felt something was lost.

People like Zhang who take soccer seriously prefer browsing Hupu or Dongqiudi instead for useful information and in-depth discussion.

The day of the opening match was also Zhang’s 2,736th day on Dongqiudi. He usually spends an hour on it every day, checking out match information, schedules, stats on his teams, and the latest soccer news.

On Dongqiudi, fans can set up a chatroom for their favorite club to discuss anything from matches to players, forming a community of their own. There is a “community” for almost every club in the Big Five — the strongest football leagues in Europe — including England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1. However, Zhang felt that the quality of the discussion was quite poor and users were not active.

He used to love reviewing the games with his peers to analyze the tactics, but now he rarely posts anything, much less replies to any posts. “There’s very little room for rational discussion. When a player wins, people think he’s amazing; when he loses, he’s deemed worthless,” he said.

Dongqiudi’s competitor, Hupu, boasts stronger communities for sports fans, but it has evolved to diversify its content and target groups. Zhang contends the site is no longer a place just for discussing sports. Its most popular forum today is one that was originally dedicated to fluff posts. Hupu is also the main online forum for basketball fans, so soccer is not quite the star.

Veteran sports fans share Zhang’s sentiments. They are frequent users of Hupu and Dongqiudi, but they rarely, if ever, interact with others. Qiang Qiang, another soccer fan, said he’s only on the sites for the sports news, not for socializing. “When the discussion topics are too narrow on Dongqiudi, you lose interest in discussion, much less starting a new topic. And many topics on Hupu have nothing to do with sports. When a discussion can get so heated to a point that it is out of control, the only thing to do is to stay away,” he said.

WeChat has become the main platform they use to talk about sports. They have set up chat groups with other soccer fans. When possible, they might meet up to watch a game or two together.

From Douyin, Dongqiudi, and Hupu

From Douyin, Dongqiudi, and Hupu

The good old days

Twelve years ago when the World Cup was hosted in South Africa, the most popular online forum for sports fans in China was Baidu Tieba.

“The soccer community on Tieba really thrived back then. People were very active and put their heart into it,” Zhang recalled. “There were match previews, live posts during the matches, post-match news, interviews, and even online magazines. There were also in-depth articles and high-quality comments.”

The soccer community on Tieba really thrived back then. People were very active and put their heart into it.

Qiang became friends with a handful of Tieba users in real life. They keep meeting up to watch soccer games together and hang out to this day.

Le Le became a fan of a Spanish soccer player during the 2010 World Cup and found other fans on Tieba. “The Tieba post dedicated to him had a lot of his in-game videos and analyses about him,” Le said. “After I watched them, I started following his club and tuned into almost every game. He later switched to another club, but I remained a supporter of the original club and made some friends. Each club has its own characteristics and style, so those supporting the same club are usually like-minded people and it is easier to become friends with them.”

But Tieba was far from perfect. The rapid growth of the user base and several controversies gradually exposed mismanagement at Baidu and the shortcomings of its features. With the rise of other platforms like Weibo and WeChat, soccer fans began to move away from Tieba.

In 2014, Dongqiudi became a hot spot for soccer fans to get together to talk about the World Cup games in Brazil. It was the first site exclusively dedicated to soccer, unlike Weibo where anyone can talk about anything. Hupu, which first started as a hub for basketball fans, tapped into soccer as well to grab a share of the pie. It started to provide real-time and comprehensive sports news, while relying on high-quality users to create content and expand its influence.

According to Chinese data analysis provider Analysys Qianfan, Dongqiudi saw 3.15 million active users in October 2022, which represented a steady decline since 2016. Hupu also saw a continued drop in its user base after it peaked at 7.16 million users in February this year.

Rui, who works in the sports industry, believes that social media sites with specific content are struggling due to changes in the media landscape and user needs.

Wang Gang/VCG

Wang Gang/VCG

“There is no shortage of information on the internet. Social media sites must be able to filter information to identify what users are most interested in — such as the top teams and stars — in order to maintain traffic,” he said. “It becomes a natural choice to focus your resources on the most trending topics.”

There is no shortage of information on the internet. Social media sites must be able to filter information to identify what users are most interested in.

But trending topics often get out of control. “A lot of times, they can be disputes between irrational fans, spam posts, or just rants. It can bring in a lot of traffic, but it sours the vibe in the community,” he added.

It also pushes out quality content creators. Rui said there used to be so many users who created valuable content for the community. They would write tactical analysis, profile stories, and in-depth features about soccer and its history. But these are not quick, simple articles to enjoy, so very few actually read them.

Over time, some users have turned to creating content that can drive traffic, while some have stopped writing altogether. Many users also just use the site for news instead of its social functions.

A slow death

There are relatively few sports fans in China. Sports-focused platforms that only have millions of active users cannot compete with their mainstream counterparts that have tens of millions of users. They also struggle to keep up with well-funded video platforms competing for broadcasting rights.

They constantly face the dilemma between maintaining quality and expanding their reach. “The more niche the content, the faster the user base reaches a peak and the faster it hits a growth dilemma,” Rui explained. “But the problem with diversifying content is that it doesn’t align with user habits. Why would people use an interest-based platform to discuss social or entertainment news?”

Dongqiudi has spotted a chance for growth in a major sports event like the World Cup, but so have short video platforms like Douyin, which are rising fast in the market and eager to seize more traffic.

This year, China’s national broadcaster CCTV sold the broadcasting rights of the World Cup to Migu and Douyin. Douyin not only boasted free 4K streaming for all users, but also invited Chinese sports celebrities to provide commentary. Without any rights, Hupu and Dongqiudi could only resort to real-time text reports. Nothing visual was allowed.

Over the past six years, Hupu has failed twice to launch an IPO as the market doubts its ability to monetize, industry insiders say. Specialized platforms like Hupu share the same issues of having not enough active users and too much niche content, which translates to limited profitability.

The more niche the content, the faster the user base reaches a peak and the faster it hits a growth dilemma.

For a long time, their biggest source of income was advertisements. “You have to recognize that their primary users are straight men who are not big spenders,” Rui said, “It’s really hard for them to be influenced by advertisements. Sports products aren’t like cosmetics, fashion, or products that can be consumed right away, so the advertisers that these platforms can attract are very limited.”

In recent years, almost every soccer-focused social media platform has dipped their toes into soccer betting to increase revenue. For example, Dongqiudi recruited social media influencers to write game analyses. Users can pay to read these analyses or pay for a membership to access more content tailored for soccer betting. Likewise, Hupu also provides “expert views” as paid content.

“Offering paid content on sports betting is a gray area,” Rui said. “But then again, Dongqiudi and its competitors seem to have no better options.”

To soccer fans like Zhang and industry insiders like Rui, maintaining high standards while finding commercial opportunities in the sports business today seems almost impossible in China.

“People pay more attention to flashy content on social media. That’s just how the industry works,” Rui said.

Reported by Wu Jiaoying.

At the request of the interviewees, Zhang Hang, Qiang Qiang, Lele, and Rui are all pseudonyms.

A version of this article originally appeared in Kaiboluo Caijing. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhi Yu and Elise Mak. 

(Header image: IC)