22 June 2013

Two ways to develop an Asian fanbase

A little while back Aston Villa solicited and posted photos of their fans from around the globe on their various online platforms. Among the photos was one of three Nepali soccer players wearing Aston Villa uniforms. Aston Villa had donated the kits to Machhindra FC, a top-flight football club in Nepal, where the players were plying their trade at the time.

Aston Villa Facebook Page displays photo of Nepali players
The photo was taken about six years ago and I was quite curious to find out whether the three footballers in the photo – Azad Pradhan, Kiran Chemjong and Buddha Chemjong, all well known soccer stars in Nepal, had become Aston Villa supporters since receiving those kits.

I’ve been around the Asian soccer scene long enough to have a fairly solid idea of what the answers to my inquiry would be and indeed my hypothesis on the matter proved to be correct – none of the three players had become Villans. Azad and Buddha are Manchester United fans and Kiran is a Chelsea supporter.

Building a fanbase in Asia

For about the last dozen years clubs and leagues, primarily European but also from the Americas, have been looking for ways to make inroads into Asia and develop a potentially lucrative fanbase in a continent that boasts over half the worlds population and many of its fastest growing economies.

What they are probably finding out quickly is that if you are not Barcelona, Manchester United or any of the ten or so elite clubs in Europe, your likelihood of developing a vibrant following in Asia is extremely small. That is because there are basically only two ways to develop fans in Asia – winning trophies or signing an Asian player.

Winning trophies

Everybody likes a winner. You can multiply that by a thousand when the teams you might potentially root for are half way around the world. For every oddball who will support a club because of their colors, nickname, website design or a come-and-get-me plea, the great majority become fans of teams that win trophies.

Besides the obvious fact that following a team that wins is exciting and fun, winners are on TV more, play in continental championships such as the UEFA Champions League and lend their players to the best national teams, thus they have many platforms to drum up support and engage their followers.

On the other hand clubs that do not win trophies slip off of the radar and have little to offer potential fans that have no geographic or family connections to the club. Even marketing or charitable endeavors they might have been involved in a region of Asia is usually not enough to turn the people in that area into proper supporters.

When returning to Nepal from foreign trips I would always bring my cousins Premier League souvenirs. Usually they would be of an unfancied club such as Blackburn Rovers as I did not want my relatives becoming ManU or Liverpool supporter like the rest. Ultimately most of my cousins ended up becoming fans of the glamor clubs anyway. Their response when asked why they gravitated to the big clubs – “Blackburn are never on TV!”

Signing an Asian player

If a club is not able to win trophies the only other way to develop Asian fans is by signing an Asian player, though this tactic might not work as well now as it once did in places like Japan and South Korea that have a large contingent of players in Europe already.

Asians tend to be quite jingoistic so if a foreign club signs one of their countrymen they will be likely to root for that club. I remember in my college days in Thailand when English lower division side Huddersfield Town signed local hero Kiatisuk Senamuang you could find kits of The Terriers, be it the knockoff variety, all over Bangkok.

Signing an Asian player however might be a pretty short-lived strategy, especially at the rate at which players change clubs these days. I doubt many people in Japan continued to follow Italian side Perugia after Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata left the club.

All this is not so say that a club will not get a few fans here and there by executing some marketing initiatives in Asia, but in the end the ROI will probably not even cover the flight and hotel expenses of the club’s marketing director’s trip to Asia.

There is hope!

Before the also-rans and minnows of world football write-off Asia as 'good for nothing' there are still many revenue generation opportunities in the continent, it just will not come via trying to develop an Asian fanbase.

Regions and venues looking to promote themselves still may find value in writing a paycheck to bring over a known foreign club, even if they are not one of the elites.

There might be opportunities to sign deals with satellite channels looking for more content or cheaper programming.

Asian companies keen to enhance their profile abroad (or even at home) could find benefits in sponsoring foreign clubs and leagues – especially with the B2B and B2E opportunities the sponsorship might also generate.

And then there is always the dream possibility that an Asian billionaire on the lookout for a new toy to play with will purchase your club.

Author's note: The irony of this article is that I myself became an Aston Villa supporter after randomly selecting them as my team when playing a football management video game at my home in Kathmandu. I kept an eye on the club and gradually turned into a passionate fan ever since. And yes, I did have a small role to play in getting Aston Villa to donate those kits to the Nepali club.