A Shift in China: From Medal Pursuits to Mass Participation Sports and Public Well-being

China is experiencing a notable surge in mass participation sports, marking a strategic shift from prioritising medal attainment to promoting public well-being. With cycling, running, ultimate frisbee, and flag football gaining global popularity as outdoor mass participation sports, China is fully embracing this trend. The country’s burgeoning middle class plays a pivotal role in this expansion, boasting financial empowerment and readiness to invest.

Recently lifted Covid-19 restrictions have set China on a path to regain its dynamic momentum. The pandemic has reshaped priorities, prompting a heightened emphasis on health and fitness from both the populace and the government. As stated by President Xi during the previous year’s CCP National Congress, China is committed to fast-tracking sports growth from kindergarten to the professional leagues, aligning with the Healthy China 2030 initiative.

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Sports Fuelling China’s Mass Participation

Despite recent challenges, running is gaining popularity among the Chinese public, especially among the young and affluent demographic. The 2021 Public Exercise Behaviours and Consumption Report revealed that running had become the most favored physical activity in China leading into 2022, primarily in the country’s major cities, with a continued growth of 10 million in 2022. Official marathons have grown from 51 in 2014 to over 1.9k before the pandemic hit, fueling the public’s motivation and thereby driving the growth of this sport.

Key figures like Qi Min, one of China’s premier ultra-marathon runners, have paved the way for the sport’s expansion. With low barriers to entry, an exhaustive events calendar, government backing, and an increasing health and fitness interest, the success ingredients are all in place. Brands such as Nike, New Balance, and Li-Ning have significantly contributed to the popularisation of running in China through collaborations with the Chinese Athletics Association and marketing campaigns. New brands like the Roger Federer-endorsed ON Running and Lululemon are also striving to make running accessible to the masses.

Cycling is another key driver of this growth, experiencing a surge in popularity fueled by local municipality support via organization of local and international events. The escalating popularity of cycling is attributed to several factors, including advanced tech in the bicycle industry, record-breaking pro peloton speeds, and a new generation of versatile super-athletes. Cycling is entering a new era, with notable figures like Mathieu Van Der Poel, Wout Van Aert, and Tadej Pogacar demonstrating their prowess by winning races across categories, from Grand Tours to Spring Classics. Former China National Champion and pro-tour racer Meiyin Wang has also been a significant source of inspiration for Chinese fans. These young cyclists are setting the stage for new role models to inspire youth, thus fuelling China’s escalating passion for mass participation sports.

In 2022, the Instagram-like platform Xiaohongshu reported a 24x increase in “frisbee” searches compared to 2021, and over 20,000 articles introducing flag football. Participants appreciate the affordability and accessibility of these niche sports, as well as their positive fitness impact, thereby justifying the government’s grassroots investment. Socializing and camaraderie, both of which are increasingly appreciated by Chinese youth, form the core of these activities.

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Emerging Markets Offering Significant ROI

This scenario presents a unique opportunity for brands and IPs to tap into a rapidly expanding and motivated market at its inception. For instance, research predicts that the cycling market in China will reach a staggering $16.5bn by 2026, with ecommerce and social commerce significantly contributing to this growth.

Social media platforms such as Douyin and Xiaohongshu are adeptly targeting sports fans with innovative social-commerce solutions, popularised through Key Opinion Leaders – a highly trusted force in China. With the West having already demonstrated the potential of this market, the risk is low, and the reward is high.

Cycling, in particular, presents a prime opportunity for businesses aiming to penetrate the mass participation sports market and connect with consumers. With its escalating popularity in tier one and two cities across China, cycling represents a profitable market for a sport that requires a significant investment to participate.

The 2023 McKinsey China Consumer Report forecasts that by 2025, middle-class households in China will rise to 65% from 43% in 2015, forming an increasingly sophisticated consumer base with an appetite for high-quality products. For brands looking to enter this market, the allure of cycling as a means to engage this consumer group couldn’t be more potent.

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From Grassroots to Big Leagues

Recreational and competitive cycling are not yet fully developed as mass participation sports in China, highlighting an opportunity for growth. Grassroots development is significantly needed, and fortunately, the Chinese government is already investing in developing sports such as basketball and football at this level, and cycling shares the same potential. With adequate support and investment, cycling has the capacity to emerge as a major sport in China, and businesses that enter early stand to gain substantial benefits.

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A New Type of Esport

Entries for the 2023 Giro Ride Like a Pro in Shanghai sold out within five minutes, and other Grand Tour IP events in China, such as the Vuelta a España in Beijing, have also experienced sell-outs. Beyond traditional cycling, digital and esports opportunities are transforming cycling into an exhilarating new sphere for both competitors and spectators. Organisations like the Super League Triathlon and the Zwift Racing Academy are rapidly turning cycling into an esports and an arena-based spectator sport. These advancements have paved the way for online shopping, subscriptions, and paid content, as indicated by the $2.9bn worth of online sales of bicycles and related accessories in 2019.

The future of mass participation sports in China looks promising, with cycling leading the charge. Although China lacks a robust heritage in mass participation sport, its swiftly growing popularity in tier 1 and 2 cities offers an unmatched opportunity for brands to connect with an increasingly sophisticated consumer base.

The potential for grassroots development is immense, and with the right support and investment, cycling has the potential to become a major sport in China. The current moment presents a prime opportunity to invest in the mass participation sports market in China, and those who seize this opportunity early are likely to achieve long-term success.