HONG KONG: European football clubs are heading to Asia in unprecedented numbers but experts are questioning how much success they are having in tapping the vast market.
Teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid are veterans of long-haul flights to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing but they are being joined in business class by a host of rivals for the Asian dollar.
German champions Bayern Munich have two promotional friendlies in Japan next week and English clubs Everton and Manchester City, who both have Chinese players, are playing a tournament in Bangkok along with Bolton and the Thai national team.
Meanwhile, Dutch and French champions PSV Eindhoven and Lyon are headlining the eight-team Peace Cup tournament in South Korea also featuring Real Sociedad of Spain and London club Tottenham Hotspur.
Italy’s Fiorentina complete the exodus in a European summer free of World Cup or European Cup commitments.
The clubs hope the tours will raise their profile in Asia, guessing that a bigger fan base will translate into extra revenues.
However, experts say in return for a tiring trip for the players, clubs aren’t getting much more than their appearance fee and some extra shirt sales.
Turning popularity into profit is the next challenge, they say.
Harry Philp, managing director of London-based consultancy Inner Circle Sports, cited the example of United who are seeing little return from their estimated 40 million Asian fans.
“Historically, the number of shirts that you sell and other revenue streams that you can generate from the business have been reasonably successful but in terms of the potential market it’s been relatively small,” he said.
Philp said clubs needed to look at new sources of revenue such as paid Internet broadcasts of match footage.
“They’ve got to look at ways to bring in club product, be it purely through merchandising sales or access to matches through new media,” said Philp.
“It’s a question of getting to your target audience and finding out how you retain interest. It’s a challenge for the clubs: how do you retain interest and generate revenue?”
Promoter Terry Catton, who has brought Juventus, AC Milan and Newcastle to Hong Kong, said clubs normally receive a big fee – perhaps US$1mil – for Asian exhibition games plus travel and accommodation costs.
They may also take some of the ticket proceeds and will use the trip to sell merchandise such as shirts and club membership.
Catton said he had never seen so many teams touring Asia, but warned that the smaller clubs would struggle to make an impression.
“I think the big clubs will continue to dominate. It will be very difficult for the smaller clubs,” he said.
“It’s the star appeal. All the fans in Asia really want to see the biggest clubs so it will be difficult for the secondary clubs to make a big impact.”
He said many Asian fans followed individual players rather than clubs, citing the example of David Beckham who attracted huge interest to Real Madrid’s 2003 Asian tour.
Beckham made his debut for the Spanish giants in Beijing, and United are expected to unveil newly signed South Korean international midfielder Park Ji-sung during their Asian tour this month.
Ji-sung, the English Premier League’s highest profile Asian signing so far, could prove a boost both for United’s team and bank balance.
“It’s always an interesting question about signing Asian players whether they’ve been signed for their ability or marketing,” said Philp.
“I’m sure Ji-sung’s been signed purely on his football ability. The fact that he’s Korean and Korea is a major market they’re trying to develop certainly helps.
“I think we’ll see more signings of Asian players as the standards continue to rise in Asian football.”
Sun Ji-hai and Li Tie have raised Manchester City and Everton’s profile in China immeasurably.
But for every Ji-sung, there’s a Dong Fangzhou. The young Chinese striker has been loaned out to Belgian side Royal Antwerp since signing for United two years ago, and will play his first game for the club on tour.
Clubs are also reaching out to Asia through sponsorship deals.
English champions Chelsea recently signed a shirt deal with South Korean electronics giant Samsung, Everton are sponsored by Beer Chang of Thailand and Portsmouth by Japanese firm Oki.
However, Liverpool drew the line at a supposed takeover bid by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year. – AFP