Asia and the EPL: How a Continent Fell in Love with the Premier League

Ed Dove@EddydoveContributor IIIAugust 8, 2013

SO KON PO, HONG KONG - JULY 27:  Fans cheer for their team during the Third Place Play-Off match between Tottenham and South China at Hong Kong Stadium on July 27, 2013 in So Kon Po, Hong Kong.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images for FA Premier League)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It’s no coincidence that Premier League teams invest so much time and money in Asian territories during the preseason. Asia offers an enormous market for the Premier League product and has emerged as an invaluable revenue stream for EPL sides.

But why has Asia become such a hot bed for Premier League fervour?

Why are we no longer surprised to see banks and banks of Tottenham fans in Hong Kong wearing their Lilywhite replica shirts and singing “Ossie’s Dream” just as they would on the Shelf at White Hart Lane?

How is it that Liverpool fans in Jakarta know all the words, all the harmonies and even the nuances within the nuances of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”?

This article explores the relationship between Asia and the Premier League product and examines the interrelationship between the EPL and the continent’s market.

The Origins of the Adulation

There are two key reasons why the English game has found such favour among Asian markets. Initially, it is a case of timing, and secondly, it is the intrinsic value of the product.

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It is a relationship that Japan Today has described as “decades in the making” and the site suggests that British football is so popular primarily because it was the first European soccer to be broadcast regularly in Asia.

Before Europe’s other leagues had even begun to think about expanding their exposure to markets beyond the local, ITV and BBC were already selling the English game and broadcasting British football in Asia.

Thus, the Premier League was the first major European division to truly be seen by the Asian public and subsequently left a historical imprint on the public.

Secondly, the nature of English top-flight contests have appealed to the casual sports fan. While some of Europe’s other leagues may come across as staid, clinical or dispassionate, the British game has built its reputation upon the furious, dramatic and exciting contests that furnish its league.

It is a product almost perfectly designed for consummation, appreciation and the subsequent retention of interest and support.

The Scale of the Affection

Initially, it is important to clarify the fairly obvious fact that it isn’t just in Asia that the Premier League is an enormous vehicle. According to Danny Lee of the South China Morning Post, over 70 percent of the 2.1 billion soccer fans in the world follow the Premier League making it, substantially, the most visible domestic competition among the global public.

With regard to Asia, it is perhaps best to let the numbers explain the EPL’s popularity and to convey just how sizeable the continent’s market is.

For the 2010-11 Premier League season, the UK had an in-home audience of 629 million—this compares with a combined 361 million in North and South America combined, 761 million in the rest of Europe, and 879 million in Africa and the Middle East.

Impressive numbers, but that's completely dwarfed by the audience tuned in from Asia; offering an in-home audience of 1,300 million meant that the continent provided 32.5 percent of the Premier League’s public for the 10-11 season, according to Repucom, Premier League Fan Survey 2011/12.

The numbers have only grown over the past 18 months, demonstrating the enormous role that Asia plays within the global Premier League market. Lee states there are some who estimate that Asia’s total soccer fanbase numbers over a billion—the kind of interest that the home market cannot even begin to compare with.

The desire to witness the spectacle of Premier League was once again evident during the recent Barclays Asia Trophy. Even though the recent British and Irish Lions’ rugby tour failed to generate capacity crowds, the lethargic batch of soccer friendlies saw the Hong Kong Stadium packed to the rafters.

Mutual Rewards

This enormous audience, a public hungry for the Premier League and hugely receptive to the product, generates an enormous income for EPL sides and has a self-perpetuating effect on the product.

Asian interest boosts sales of shirts and other merchandise, encourages extensive television contracts and prompts huge commercial sponsorship deals—companies aware of the visibility they will enjoy due to any association with a Premier League side.

This is why Asian businesses such as Samsung, Chang and Goldenway are accruing such enormous expenditure in backing Premier League teams Chelsea, Everton and Swansea, respectively. These enterprises realise the value of the EPL teams as vehicles to promote their specific brand to a wildly receptive Asian audience.

The lucrative rewards available are encouraging EPL sides—not to mention clubs further afield—to invest in their relationships with the Asian market. Hence why the likes of Sunderland and Spurs are traipsing all the way to faraway lands to play in anonymous tournaments on pitches that have taken their toll on key players.

Both Jan Vertonghen and Matija Nastasic face a race against time to be fit for the Prem’s opening weekend—the pair a legacy of the demands of the Barclays Asia Trophy, a preseason romp that saw Manchester City, Sunderland and Tottenham compete alongside South China Athletic Association.

While conditions were dire, the EPL managers were under pressure to feed the furore that surrounds their teams in Asia and to deliver to the public the star names the people crave.

The publicity-savvy Sheikh Mansour, the Emirati owner of Manchester City, is acutely aware of the benefits of intelligent presentation to Asian publics. According to Lee, over 16 percent of the Citizens fans come from China—over five times more than from Britain.

The club needs to fuel this burgeoning fanbase with visibility, astute marketing and, perhaps most importantly, the kind of success that thrusts a club to the top of the tree and makes it stand out in a clustered environment.

Liverpool have also taken key steps to capitalise upon this crucial and ever-growing market.

The club’s appointment of managing director Ian Ayre was a move taken with an international vision. Ayre was formerly with Total Sports Asia—a self-proclaimed “global leader in sports content and branding solutions”and brings extensive knowledge of the Asian market to the dusty hallways of Anfield.

There is no doubt that on-field success and status has a major impact on the marketability of one footballing brand or another.

While QPR will certainly have suffered financially from dropping out of the Premier League due to a dip in television money, their major fiscal hit may come from missing out on forging a connection with the Malaysian fans that owner Tony Fernandes had been focusing on.

As the Rangers slip out of the top flight, another Malaysian-owned team, Cardiff City, take their place. No side in British history has ever come close to shaping their identity and their brand image toward an Asian audience quite like Cardiff. The Welsh club’s Malaysian owner, Vincent Tan, is anticipating a major windfall from his native audience following the Red Dragons’ imminent Premier League exposure.

For the time being, this unique and lucrative relationship shows no sign of halting.

The Premier League sides’ fuelling of the Asian passion—the preseason tours and talk of a 39th fixture—is an important side of this mutually beneficial triangle. The clubs receive enormous incomes, the sponsors achieve an effective means for the transmission of their brand and the Asian public get to enjoy the product they so crave.

Follow @Eddydove on Twitter to continue the dialogue.

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