China’s sports marketing opportunities, from blokecore to skateboarding

    From emerging sports to functional fashion, sports-related searches on Douyin are spiking. How can brands get in on the game?
    China competes at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023. Photo: Getty Images
      Published   in Consumer

    This year is set to be an epic one for sports events — and sports marketing. The Paris Olympics, NBA season, English Premier League season, Euro 2024, Qatar Asian Cup, and F1 season are expected to dominate the sports scene in China, in that order.

    This popularity ranking is according to Douyin’s 2024 Sports Trends report, released by Douyin E-commerce and CBNData. The report examines consumption trends on the Chinese short-video platform to identify the top activities, athletes, and fashion styles that will rise to prominence this year.

    Even beyond global competitions, interest in sports is surging in alignment with Chinese consumers’ prioritization of health post-pandemic. In 2023, the average number of sports-related videos posted monthly on Douyin surpassed 80 million, while the average monthly views for this content exceeded 300 billion.

    Given the packed calendar of sporting events and the fervent enthusiasm of Chinese consumers, here’s what luxury brands should know to get a piece of the action.

    Emerging, extreme sports on the rise#

    With the Paris 2024 Olympics including breakdancing for the first time and welcoming back surfing, skateboarding, and sport climbing, which debuted at the Tokyo Olympics, it’s no surprise all four activities are trending on Douyin.

    From January 2023 to February 2024, the hashtags “love the freedom of skateboarding” (#好爱滑板的自由感) and “smooth breakdancing” (#丝滑霹雳舞) attracted 8.92 million views and 8.43 million views, respectively, on Douyin. Other hashtags that surpassed 7 million views were related to skiing, soccer, as well as more relaxing pastimes like fishing and tai chi.

    The hashtag “love the freedom of skateboarding” had 8.92 million views on Douyin as of February 2024. Photo: Douyin
    The hashtag “love the freedom of skateboarding” had 8.92 million views on Douyin as of February 2024. Photo: Douyin

    Outside of Olympic sports, views of videos related to outdoor hiking grew by 297 percent, stream climbing (a type of mountaineering) increased by 135 percent, and pickleball spiked by 180 percent between 2022 and 2023. According to the Douyin report, more extreme sports are also gaining traction, with couples in particular joining challenges to free dive, run marathons, and wake surf together.

    These hot topics present opportunities for brands to employ online-to-offline marketing and engage niche communities in China.

    Brands can launch their own hashtags, create a sports-influenced competition, or organize livestreaming events,” says Anaïs Bournonville, co-founder of consultancy Reverse Group. “They can invite Chinese netizens to join a fashion or sports competition, especially in niche sports like climbing, hiking, and skateboarding, if they want to increase consumer engagement and improve brand sentiment.”

    Allison Malmsten, a luxury and sportswear strategy consultant at Daxue Consulting, suggests creating pop-up stores around these sports, similar to what brands did at Chinese ski resorts when skiing came into fashion.

    “One area is Hainan for surfing. [Brands can] leverage Douyin to post content and videos on these pop-ups on the brand channel," says Malmsten. The report also names Wanning, Xiamen, and Qingdao as top local destinations for water sports.

    Search for summer’s Eileen Gu#

    At the same time, major sports events like the Olympics can turn athletes into full-fledged celebrities. Case in point: Eileen Gu after the Beijing Winter Olympics. Since the Games, the freestyle skier has racked up ambassadorship appointments at Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., IWC, and other brands.

    When it comes to the rising Olympic stars of 2024, Douyin highlights table tennis player Sun Yingsha (3.53 million fans on Douyin, as of writing), track and field stars Su Bingtian (4.36 million), Xia Sining (2.86 million), and Wu Yanni (3.15 million), along with women’s basketball player Li Meng (2.44 million).

    Chinese athletes Wu Yanni, left, and Xia Sining, right, promote local brands Oladance and Qiaodan, respectively. Photo: Weibo
    Chinese athletes Wu Yanni, left, and Xia Sining, right, promote local brands Oladance and Qiaodan, respectively. Photo: Weibo

    Douyin also listed one non-Chinese athlete who is gaining steam in China: NBA player James Harden. With a following of 2.8 million, the point guard hit it big on the app last August when he joined a livestream with Chinese KOL Crazy Little Brother Yang, selling 10,000 bottles of his personal wine brand in seconds.

    Fashion and luxury brands have increasingly embraced Chinese athletes, especially as China’s government has become more scrutinous of the entertainment industry. Alison Bringé, CMO of Launchmetrics, notes that their emphasis on “a sense of community, aspirational values, and a winning narrative” makes them perfect for fronting fashion brands.

    “While celebrities from the entertainment industry can certainly have a positive impact on brand performance, youthful and inspiring Olympic athletes offer a more reliable and consistent pathway to consumers, mitigating the risks of unpredictable outcomes and diversifying ambassador portfolios,” she says.

    Brands can prepare for the Paris Olympics by identifying and partnering with these stars early on, says Malmsten. “[Brands can] take note of who the rising stars are, so they can be some of the first to work with the Eileen Gu of summer sports.”

    Soccer jerseys, hiking jackets are closet staples#

    Sporting events are also poised to inject new life into the fashion sector in 2024. For instance, the UEFA Euro 2024 men’s soccer competition, scheduled for June, could potentially kick off another blokecore wave. According to the report, in 2023, Douyin views for “vintage jerseys” increased by 516.4 percent compared to 2022, while views of “sports stripes” jumped 226 percent over the same period.

    Blokecore, a soccer-inspired fashion trend, became popular in China after the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Douyin
    Blokecore, a soccer-inspired fashion trend, became popular in China after the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Douyin

    And there’s longevity to these fashion trends. “The sports-influenced styles remain popular even after the events because they are a source of fashion inspiration,” says Reverse Group’s Bournonville. “We noticed that 68 percent of consumers purchase athleisure for their daily lives, not for exercise. Today, Chinese fashion consumers want fashion and comfort, and the sports-influenced styles offer this perfect balance.”

    This demand for functional fashion is further illustrated by the surging popularity of sun-protective wear and outdoor gear. On Douyin, video views of hiking jackets were up by 1,265 percent in 2023 compared to 2022, while the hashtag “sun protection is a must all year round” (#防晒是一年四季的必修课) attracted over 4 million views as of February 2024.

    As the weather heats up, Chinese consumers seek sun-protective jackets and hats. Photo: Douyin
    As the weather heats up, Chinese consumers seek sun-protective jackets and hats. Photo: Douyin

    Previously, global brands have capitalized on China’s sports fashion trends, like gorpcore and courtcore, by promoting existing collections that cater to players or by releasing marketing campaigns that incorporate elements of those sports.

    Sports consumption resilience #

    Douyin is clearly a rich hub of sports content. But does this interest in China translate to sales?

    During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Douyin e-commerce recorded a 365 percent year-on-year surge in sporting goods sales, with sales of skateboarding equipment increasing as much as 353 percent. Similarly, during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, sales of World Cup merchandise jumped by more than 400 percent compared with pre-game sales.

    However, consumer confidence is not as high as it once was. Economic uncertainties are causing the middle class to dial back spending. But analysts remain optimistic about the sports market.

    “While there’s going to be more thought behind every purchase due to less consumer confidence, the current wave of parents has a more holistic view of raising children and is investing in their children’s sports,” says Malmsten. “So a focus on youth is one area for growth in this economy.”

    “Chinese consumers consider sports as an investment,” adds Bournonville. “Even with the current state of China’s economy, consumers switch from mass purchases to smart purchases, and sports sales are not forecasted to slow down. Most consumers consider sports and health as a safe-haven investment in the current situation.”

    • Emerging Olympic sports like breakdancing, rock climbing, and skateboarding are gaining popularity in China, presenting niche marketing opportunities for brands.
    • Despite economic uncertainties, the sports market in China remains resilient, with consumers viewing sports as a long-term investment in health and well-being.
    • Major sporting events this year, including the Paris Olympics and the UEFA Euro 2024 men’s soccer competition, are expected to revive sports-themed fashion trends like blokecore and courtcore.
    • Brands can employ a similar strategy used when skiing became popular after the Beijing Winter Olympics, such as promoting sports-themed fashion collections and opening pop-ups at top sports destinations.
    • To raise visibility, luxury brands can also partner with China’s rising sports stars, such as table tennis player Sun Yingsha; track and field stars Su Bingtian, Xia Sining, and Wu Yanni; and women’s basketball player Li Meng.
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