If the rumour mill is to be believed, England football captain, Wayne Rooney, will shortly following the likes of Oscar and Axel Witsel to ply his trade in China. Plenty has been said about the rights and wrongs of this as a playing career move but, as Rooney sneaks towards his 32nd birthday, perhaps it is a very canny move as regards the off-field Rooney brand.
The only reason not to be aware of the current investment in sport in China is if you have been under a rock for a few years but, as I found when I was there on a business trip this year, the focus on the tracksuits is only half the story, there is a huge amount happening around the business of sport, not least of all in social media. Rooney is a powerful social influencer, with a Facebook following of 25.5 million as well as 14.4 million on Twitter and another 9.4 million on Instagram. Whilst these are impressive stats, if Rooney embraces Chinese social media with similar gusto, his reach could be many-fold greater.
So what is the social media landscape in China actually like? Due to legal restrictions, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are blocked. As a result, the country has created its own social networks that are now proving exceptionally successful. Between Q1 2015 and Q1 2016, micro-blogging website Sina Webo experienced a 32% growth compared to its European equivalent Twitter, which grew 2.6%. The website has got in excess of 300 million Monthly Active Users (MAU). Elsewhere, instant messaging app WeChat, is another vast platform; in 2016 it exceeded 800 million MAU, more than the entire population of Europe.
The Chinese in-territory hunger for content from sports stars is vast, however only a handful of international sports personalities have, so far, embraced this potential. The combined elements of market size and a more relaxed approached to brand promotion and advertising, the revenue streams that can be generated are set to be big.
One worldwide sports celebrity who has seized the moment and elevated his presence in China is Kobe Bryant. Basketball is a hugely popular sport in the region, highlighted by the reaction to Bryant's retirement announcement on Chinese social media. The #ThankYouKobe and #Kobe hashtags generated 370 million impressions, some of which must be credited to a social media strategy that specifically targeted the country.
Cristiano Ronaldo is another world-class athlete wisely embracing this emerging market. He has raised his profile in the country through social media, marketing and celebrity endorsements. As Ronaldo's profile has risen, so too have the sizes of his commercial deals, his endorsement of mobile phone manufacturer Nubia was rumoured to be in the region of $400million.
A company which is looking to act as a bridge between Western sports professionals and the Chinese market is sports technology company HaiQiu Sports. It is especially well-placed to do so as it was co-founded by former Man City defender, Sun Jihai. Given his understanding of Western and Chinese markets, HaiQiu Sports aims to connect professional sports players with the Chinese public through social channels such as social-video platform Miaohi. During the first three months of trading, over 2,000 China-based footballers; athletes; Olympic champions; veteran sports media professionals; sports clubs and fan associations joined the platform, which simultaneously achieved 1 million users in the same period.
Whilst the terraces of United may be set to mourn a Rooney-free future, with such exciting opportunities lying in the orient, it will be interesting to see the degree to which Wayne feels the same.