BEIJING/LONDON: The number of top football clubs in Europe fully or partly owned by Chinese companies has ballooned to 13, from just one in 2014, requiring clubs and their brand sponsors to take account of Chinese tastes, a new report has said.

Nielsen Sports, part of Nielsen Entertainment, carried out research into the rapidly growing football market in China, where the government is actively promoting the sport and Chinese participation in it on the world stage.

According to Nielsen, Chinese companies now have major stakes in some of Europe's best-known football clubs, such as AC Milan and Inter Milan of Italy, Atletico Madrid, and City Football Group, the parent company of Manchester City from the English Premier League.

Real Madrid, with 127m fans, is the most followed European team in China, while AC Milan and Inter Milan are also very popular, each with 106m Chinese-based fans.

As clubs and brand sponsors seek to tap into this huge fan base, Nielsen advised that they should be aware that "fandom in China works very differently compared to other international markets".

Using its fan DNA research program, which segments fans based on how and why sponsorship changes their behaviour, Nielsen Sports identified the largest category of football fans in China as "Connection Fans".

Accounting for about a third (32%) of Chinese football fans, these "Connection Fans" are said to be engaged by the social aspects of the sport where they see football as a platform that brings people together.

"This group responds positively to sponsorship, particularly when messaging and communications are tailored around their drivers of engagement," the report said.

"These insights suggest that to increase followership in China, creating engaging content that brings fans closer to the game and to one another, is key," it added.

Nielsen's report comes as a growing number of major European players opt to play in the Chinese Super League in return for generous transfer fees, and at least one leading Chinese expert predicts Wayne Rooney, the England and Manchester United star, could join them.

"English players will start to go; I can very much see Wayne Rooney playing in China," said Li Jiuquan, Director of Marketing at the Chinese Football Association, in comments to Reuters.

"Wayne Rooney is well known in China ... even my son knows the name of Rooney. Maybe only Messi and Ronaldo are more famous," he added.

"Players will keep coming to China, that's for sure. The clubs want to improve the level of their performance and those kind of players attract more and more fans."

Data sourced from Nielsen Sports, Reuters; additional content by Warc staff