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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
Has East Asia bubble burst for clubs?
By Bill Wilson
BBC News business reporter

Trouble flares in the Manchester United v Beijing Hyundai match
Asian clubs are tired of being bit-part players to European stars

Many of the biggest names in European football have been flocking to East Asia this summer, attracted by the lure of cracking a huge potential market and fan base.

Manchester United have visited China, Hong Kong and Japan. Real Madrid also played in Beijing and Tokyo, while arch rivals Barcelona are also visiting the Japanese capital and Macao.

Champions League winners Liverpool were originally due to play in Japan this summer, but will be visiting Tokyo this winter to play in the World Club Championship.

Meanwhile Everton, Manchester City and Bolton have played in a tournament in Thailand, while Spurs have been to South Korea. Italy's Fiorentina and Germany's Bayern Munich are also part of the eastwards stampede.

I think they are realising they can no longer just parachute in, play a few practice-type games and pick up their match payments
Professor Tom Cannon, Kingston Business School

And in Scotland, Celtic have admitted they partly bought Japanese player Shunsuke Nakamura for the "opportunities he will bring in terms of commercial spin-offs, especially in Japan and the Far East".

But as Manchester United and Real learned this week, there may actually be a fall in interest rather than the unlimited income they envisaged.

Stadiums have been less than full, there have been shock defeats, the local media has been critical, and local players have been resentful of the posturings of superstar players.

"The clubs have gone out there for what they see as a football gold rush, but in many cases what they have found has been fool's gold," says Professor Tom Cannon of Kingston University Business School.

'Exaggerated appeal'

Mr Cannon believes clubs have their eyes on four potential prizes: new sponsorship deals, match fees, merchandising opportunities, and overseas TV rights.

Chelsea recently signed a deal with South Korean electronics giant Sumsung, and Everton are sponsored by Chang Beer of Thailand, while Manchester United have earned at least 3m for their current tour.

Bolton play Manchester City in the FA Premier League trophy
Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City may be overly-optimistic

At the same time the Asian authorities have promised to crack down on counterfeit football shirts.

"Clubs looked at how successful Real Madrid's tour was last year and a lot thought they would like some of the same this year, " observes Professor Cannon.

"However, frankly the majority have exaggerated their appeal in the Far East. Everton and Manchester City have a Chinese player but their appeal in the region generally is quite low, as it is for Bolton."

He said interest was "very narrowly based" in a number of clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, and in Japan only for a handful of stars such as David Beckham.

Aloof and distant

However, Professor Cannon says things have not gone to plan for the big names this year, with less than 25,000 fans watching United play Beijing Hyundai, and the crowd for their game in Hong Kong was down 8,000 on their last visit.

They also lost to Japanese opposition - as did Real Madrid.

The Spanish were accused of being aloof and distant from the local supporters and media, while Beckham got into an on-field scrap with a Japanese player and has since complained of being "drained" by the tour.

David Beckham is greet in Japan by hordes of female admirers
All smiles on Beckham's arrival in Tokyo but there were problems

"The truth is, that as players get more aware of their own economic power, they are less inclined to play the marketing game," says Professor Cannon.

"Their lack of enthusiasm shows, and this transfers itself to the local people - fans, media, players - who are starting to resent being 'support act' to these celebrities."

Hence the no-show crowds, scathing articles, and crunching tackles, which have been a wake-up call to visiting clubs tempted to go through the motions.

"I think they are realising they can no longer just parachute in, play a few practice-type games and pick up their match payments," Professor Cannon observes.

"There have to be long-term marketing strategies that are allowed to develop. Exaggerated expectations have to be dropped if clubs want to build proper bases in the region."

'Untapped markets'

And Harry Philp, managing director of Hermes Sports Partners, agrees clubs need to develop a successful strategy if they want to reap commercial gains in the region.

"Most of the football income streams - ticket sales, TV money, competition revenues - are fairly well fixed.

Unfortunately in the rush to crack the Far East market we are now seeing a saturation effect
Harry Philp, Hermes Sports Partners

"And home-based merchandising is fairly well capped now, so eyes are turning to the untapped markets of the US and Asia."

However Mr Philp believes European clubs have still to find the key to success in the Far East.

"Manchester United claims to have 23 million fans in China, yet only a tiny proportion of their turnover comes from outside Europe," he says.

"The problem is still in 'monetising' that following in Asia, how to convert that interest into revenue for the clubs. No-one seems to have found the formula just yet.

"And unfortunately in the rush to crack the Far East market we are now seeing a saturation effect."

'Developing nations'

Manchester United's chief executive David Gill remains confident, and says the club does not just "take the money and leave".

Youngsters in Tokyo line up in Manchester United shirts
Manchester United hopes these children are tomorrow's consumers

He said the tour did not lead "to the conclusion popularity in us is waning".

However, Mr Cannon says there has to be more awareness of the differences between Asian countries, and also the many cultural and social differences within a country like China.

"You cannot charge international admission prices to games," he says.

"Yes, there are some wealthy people but you still have to remember many Asian countries are still developing nations."




SEE ALSO:
Why is Man United a prize catch?
07 Feb 05 |  Business
'Beckham-Sama' is gone in 15 seconds
18 Jun 03 |  Asia-Pacific


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