• Footballer Lionel Messi still remains as one of the most popular sports stars among Chinese fans.

Footballer Lionel Messi still remains as one of the most popular sports stars among Chinese fans. (Photo : Twitter)

Analysis of internet traffic data has revealed China's ever-growing love for sports.

China's Thirst for Sports

In the statistical data released by search engine giant Baidu, running, swimming, ping-pong, badminton, and cycling were the most popular sports Chinese Internet users searched online in 2016.

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The number of searches for these sports grew by as much as 27 percent compared to 2015, China Daily reported.

In total, sports-related searches amounted to 1.8 billion last year, with daily hits increasing by around 4.4 million.

Zhang Wan, an executive at Baidu, said that the increase is an indicator of China's growing interest in sports.

However, Zhang noted that basketball still remains China's top sport, accounting for 50 percent of the searches. This is followed by football, with around 40 percent.

The Growing Love for Soccer

The same study revealed that searches for the domestic China Super League (CSL) have outgrown its European counterpart, the English Premier League, by 1.4 times.

Furthermore, Chinese EPL fans followed more the performances of their favorite clubs. On the other hand, La Liga fans were more focused on international players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Data from the study also revealed that Messi has thrice as many fans as Ronaldo in China.

The study's findings are very much in line with the resurging interest in soccer in China brought by the government's push to turn the country into an international power in the sport.

Riding that new wave of fan interest, clubs in the CSL have made efforts to bring in prominent players from the European leagues.

In December, the Shanghai SIPG sealed a deal to bring in Brazilian midfielder Oscar from Chelsea for $63. This was later eclipsed by their rivals Shanghai Shenhua, who got Argentine Carlos Tevez for #89 million.

However, the government announced that it will be tightening regulations against the lavish spending made by the clubs.

A spokesperson for the General Administration of Sports said that they will be putting restrictions on the incomes of high-profile players, as well as put up upper limits on the transfer fees that clubs are allowed to offer, The Guardian reported.