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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 20:18 GMT 21:18 UK
Asia covets slice of Premiership pie
by Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's former prime minister, playing football
Will Mr Thaksin be the first of a new breed of Asian football owners?

Anyone who has been on holiday in south-east Asia will recognise the moment.

Your taxi is speeding through the strange surroundings of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur when the conversation suddenly turns to more familiar territory.

It is not long before the driver has revealed an allegiance to English football - often for an unfashionable club or a long-forgotten player.

It is these kind of exchanges which bring home to you the passion, bordering on obsession, that there is for the English game in that part of the world.

Leading the way?

Given this reality, perhaps it is surprising that it has taken so long for Asian wealth to make itself felt in the Premiership, particularly at a time when clubs are changing hands as regularly as match programmes.

Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2002, a host of English football's greatest names have fallen into either US, Russian or - in the case of West Ham - Icelandic hands.

Others, such as Arsenal and Southampton, are currently the subject of transatlantic interest.

But with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra now mulling a "serious" bid for Manchester City, could the geographic tables be about to turn?

Could we ultimately see a squad of Asian tycoons seeking to go head to head with the likes of Malcolm Glazer, George Gillett and Randy Lerner?

A Thai woman poses next to the UEFA Champion's League trophy
European football is a big draw in Asia

"All the ingredients are in place," says Vinay Bedi, a football analyst at stockbrokers Wise Speke, of the prospect of significant Asian investment in the English game.

"The template is in place for doing it. If one [businessman] leads the way and is successful, then one or two others would be encouraged to follow."

As far as football-mad Mr Thaksin is concerned, there is a strong element of deja vu in his pursuit of one of England's best-supported clubs.

Back in 2004 he was widely reported to be interested in investing in Liverpool, but this speculation ultimately came to nothing.

Still, the former policeman's circumstances have changed significantly since then.

He is no longer in office, having been ousted in a bloodless coup last year, and is now living somewhat inconspicuously in London.

He would also appear to have a substantial amount of money at his disposal after his family controversially sold its interest in the once state-owned telecoms firm Shin Corp for $1.9bn.

As with all putative buyers of Premiership clubs looking to establish their credentials, Mr Thaksin has pledged significant funds for buying new players.

Stake in football

Whether he is successful or not - and there are several other suitors looking at City - the prospect of a big English club falling into Asian hands is a lively one.

Indeed, some analysts are surprised it hasn't happened already, believing that would-be buyers from Asia have been too cautious in the past.

"Perhaps they have been more risk averse and slower to react than US investors, who are savvy and have experience of running US sports," says Harry Philp, from Hermes Sports Partners.

"It is more of a first step for many Asian investors - but you do have the precedent that when the first US deal was done, people did get a lot more serious."

What is clear is that Asia's commercial stake in the English game - particularly the Premiership - is well-established and growing in value with every season.

Many of the region's most successful companies are closely associated with leading sides.

Tony Fernandes, chief executive of Air Asia
Asian firms want to be associated with the English Premiership

Drinks company ThaiBev - best known for its Chang beer - sponsors Everton, while fast-growing Malaysian airline AirAsia is one of Manchester United's many commercial partners.

Korean giant Samsung's sponsorship with Chelsea is one of the largest of its kind in the world, reported to be worth about 50m over five years.

Many Premiership teams to have at least one Asian player in their squads while pre-season tours to the continent are now commonplace - Manchester United are among those due to visit the region this summer.

Countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and Japan are no longer merely regarded as ready merchandising opportunities for the big clubs to exploit.

They are a bulwark of the Premiership's global brand and one of the main catalysts of its enormous commercial success.

The Premiership's overseas TV contract is worth 625m over the next three years - double the existing deal - and Asian markets are among the most lucrative.

Chance of glory

This level of money, added to the 1.7bn domestic TV contract beginning in August, means it is no surprise that some entrepreneurs now want to be participants as well as spectators.

Chinese and Indian companies are buying into the UK economy with a vengeance, and why should the national sport be any different?

Ji-Sung Park in action for Manchester United
Players like South Korea's Ji-Sung Park are worshipped back home

The main deterrent to Asian investment may well be the fear among leading tycoons that they may have missed the boat, as far as any possibility of glory is concerned.

The last ten major trophies on offer in the English game have been shared by just four clubs - Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool - and three of these are now effectively off-limits to takeovers.

"The main difficulty is the supply of clubs is going to start running out," says Mr Bedi, who notes that most Championships clubs with realistic Premiership ambitions are now in play.

"Those which are available and willing to be sold is increasingly getting less and less. It means that potential investors will find it harder to get the sort of business they want."

But the battle for Manchester City and speculation about other clubs - Reading chairman John Madejski says its next owner could be Asian - means the dream is unlikely to die.

Ex-Thai PM steps up Man City bid
01 May 07 |  Man City
US business duo at Liverpool helm
06 Feb 07 |  Business
Scoring on China's sports fields
16 Jul 06 |  Business

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