Page last updated at 00:06 GMT, Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Premier League looks to cash in on Asia

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Fans at a match in Bangkok

If football is a religion, as the oft-repeated cliché goes, then in Singapore, Chijmes is one of its premier places of worship.

The former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus is now a complex of restaurants and bars. And on weekend nights football fans congregate in its courtyards. With an ice-cold Tiger beer in hand, they settle in front of the big screens to watch live action from England's Premier League.

No match is more important than the biannual showdown between Liverpool and Manchester United.

And while early kick-offs in the North West of England may set the managers fuming - as was the case after the 4-1 drubbing dished out by Liverpool at Old Trafford in March - the timing is perfect for fans in this part of the world.

After all, what could be better than spending the early part of a tropical Saturday evening cheering on your favourite team at an al fresco bar?

Bad timing

But there may be trouble in paradise. The rights to show the Premier League on television have become ever more coveted across Asia, and in October, SingTel, a telecoms and internet provider, replaced StarHub as the on-screen home of Torres, Rooney and co in Singapore.

Reports suggested the three-year deal is worth close on $300m.

For fans, with the World Cup on the horizon, the timing could not have been worse. They may now have to fork out for two set-top boxes, and separate subscription fees, to get their football fix.

Liverpool's commercial director Ian Ayre
Liverpool's commercial director says the club is mindful not to exploit fans

The letters page of Singapore's main newspaper, The Straits Times, was full of anguished missives from disgruntled supporters who were already paying $50 (£31) a month under the current arrangement.

Unfortunately for them, the Premier League and its member clubs have woken up to how much cash they can extract from this part of the world.

And while TV revenue is shared among the teams, the bigger names are devising other ways to make Asian fans' loyalty pay.

Both Liverpool and Manchester United played pre-season games in Singapore over the summer. And the red men of Anfield brought huge excitement - and no little chaos - to Thailand's capital Bangkok.

Fans crammed the balconies of a massive shopping centre to get a glimpse of Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera and David Ngog during a promotional appearance for their boot-maker.

The public spaces of the Grand Hyatt Hotel became a slow-flowing river of red and white as supporters mingled with club officials. Traffic ground to a halt for hours either side of an exhibition match at the Rajamangala National Stadium.

Local sponsorship

The devotion was clear to see - and the club insisted it was not simply taking advantage of Thai fans to make a quick buck.

"We never take that approach," said Liverpool's commercial director Ian Ayre as he sipped tea in the Hyatt's lobby.

They should send someone here to understand how the locals feel. The funding comes from TV rights - and Asia provides 60% to 70% of that. The money is coming from Asia - so I think they should give back to Asia
John Chew, president of the Malaysian Liverpool Supporters' Club

"But I don't think there's a Liverpool fan in Thailand who doesn't understand that someone's paying the team to come. If we want to have the best team, with the best players, we have to have the best revenue. And part of the make up is pre-season revenue from tours."

Mr Ayre spent much of his time on tour looking at other ways to improve Liverpool's visibility in South East Asia - as well as its income.

A local sponsorship deal with Honda Motorbikes was one outcome, while in September, Standard Chartered Bank, a major player in the region, announced it would be the club's main sponsor from next season.

The challenge is to make money as well as keeping the fans happy. And during the trip to Bangkok, supporters felt the balance between commerce and passion was about right.

"This doesn't feel like a money-making exercise to me," said Duke, the president of the Thai branch of the Liverpool Supporters' Club.

"The good thing about Liverpool coming over here is they recognise Asia is a big market for them. They're not just doing one stop, make money, forget it - they're trying to make a base here."

Repaying fans

But even the most devoted fans have their limits. As supporters in Asia realise their increasing importance to English clubs' finances, they may start asking what they should receive in return.

"I proposed that they should set up a hub in Asia, given the potential support," said Duke's counterpart in Malaysia, John Chew.

"They should send someone here to understand how the locals feel. The funding comes from TV rights - and Asia provides 60% to 70% of that. The money is coming from Asia - so I think they should give back to Asia."

Duke, the president of the Thai branch of the Liverpool Supporters' Club
Duke says Liverpool's trip does not feel like a money-making exercise

Liverpool insists it is repaying Asian fans - through coaching schemes and a charitable foundation. The goal, says Mr Ayre, is "sustainable loyalty".

But that can sometimes be hard to appreciate for fans who are being asked to pay ever-higher prices to follow teams which play thousands of miles away.

The grumblings in Singapore may be short-lived - but there is a precedent for fans turning away from English football when they think they are being exploited.

In China, the Premier League made a lucrative deal with a pay-TV operator in 2007, which saw match-day audiences plummet from tens of millions to tens of thousands. Viewers switched to free-to-air offerings from the Italian and Spanish leagues instead.

Under pressure from leading clubs over this spectacular own goal, the Premier League intervened to ensure some of this season's games would be shown on free-to-air channels.

But it may take some time for the English game to recover a fan-base lost to sports such as basketball, as well as other European football leagues.

The clubs can probably not afford a repeat of that experience. The improved TV deals across Asia are guaranteed to bring in the cash for the next three years - but making sure the fans feel they are getting value for their money may be the key to ensuring the cash-flow is long term, not just a one-off windfall.

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