Manchester United Chief Dismisses 39th Game as EPL Giants Crack The Asia Market

(WFI) Manchester United chief executive David Gill has dismissed the prospect of a 39th game being added to the English Premier League season.

Instead he broached the idea of “a week or 10-day break in the fixture program” so that teams could play prestigious friendlies worldwide.

Speaking in South Korea ahead of Manchester United’s friendly against FC Seoul today, Gill said it was “highly unlikely” that the 39th game plans would be revisited.

The idea to play a 39th league game outside England was last year floated by EPL Chief Executive Richard Scudamore. But it met derision in England and a lukewarm response overseas.

The 39th game was seen as consummation of the EPL’s warming relationship with Asia. But Gill’s comments seem to indicate that his club can conquer the continent without it.

Indeed United – and other clubs - may already have done so.

United and Liverpool crack the Asian market

David Gill’s comments come midway through United’s 10-day Asian tour, where they have met ecstatic scenes.

Fans have maintained a 24-hour vigil outside the team hotel since United arrived in Seoul on Wednesday night. In Kuala Lumpur the team was confined to its hotel which was besieged by “more than 1000” supporters. Similar scenes would have been expected in Jakarta had United not been forced to cancel their visit following last Friday's suicide bombings. There will be more of the same when they visit China this weekend.

July is the short window in the annual football calendar in which Asia’s soccer-mad fans get their fix of live English matches. As well as United, six other EPL teams will have visited the continent before the season kicks off on August 15.

Such scenes as have greeted United and Liverpool, who played Thailand on Wednesday, cast doubt on whether the proposed 39th game is necessary.

Clubs are cagey when pressed on how much they net individually from Asia, but collectively the figures are vast. Asian broadcasters pay the majority of the £625 million ($1.03 billion) foreign rights fees for the EPL. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) reckons 61 per cent of all football revenue generated across the continent ends up in the hands of the EPL. United will earn an estimated £10 ($16.4) million in match fees from their ten day Asia excursion alone.

But the days when EPL clubs saw Asia merely as an untapped market to sell replica shirts are over. Instead, the pre-season trips are part of a wider charm offensive.

Harbir Gill, Director of Sportscast, a Kuala Lumpur-based media and events company which last week helped launch United’s new Nike kit, says that clubs have come to see Asia as part of a broader commercial strategy.

“For the big clubs it’s building on the relationships that they already have,” he told World Football Insider.

“The clubs realize that there is money out here, but it might not be about building a fan base any more.”

Counterfeiting, inherent in many Asian economies, limits ambitions to sell millions worth of merchandise: fans won’t pay $100 for an official shirt, when they can get a fake for a tenth of that price. Even in affluent Kuala Lumpur, where United last week officially launched its new kit, sales of the new shirt numbered just several thousand.

There are notable exceptions to this rule – the image of Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung appears on 1.2 million credit cards in his native South Korea, earning United an estimated £12 ($19.7) million – but clubs have adopted a more sophisticated approach.

“Clubs might sell a-boards, or shirt sponsorship (Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham and Portsmouth all have Asian sponsors) or hospitality,” says Gill. “United have a Japanese tire company (Kumho) as one of their sponsors – and I don’t think you can even buy those tires outside Japan.’

In January 2008 United played a seemingly pointless testimonial friendly in Riyadh. Seven months later Saudi Telecom announced a 5 year contract to market united in the country worth £9.3 ($15.3) million. “That’s the kind of the commercial set up clubs are developing now,” says Gill.

Gill’s Sportscast company have themselves seen the commercial potential of the EPL, purchasing the radio broadcast rights for next season and will start transmitting next month. He says that the market for the top clubs – principally United and Liverpool – is insatiable.

“United’s match in KL was sold out,” he
Manchester United fans show their support during the pre-season friendly match between Manchester United and Malaysia XI at Bukit Jalil National Stadium on July 20, 2009 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Getty Images)
says. “The cancelled match in Jakarta was also sold out. The match in Seoul is sold out. Liverpool were also in Bangkok yesterday, that was sold out. They’re playing Singapore on Saturday -- That’s also sold out.”

Broken dreams

The rapturous welcome received by United and Liverpool is in stark contrast to that likely to be encountered by Tottenham, West Ham and Hull in China. Next week they compete in the Barclay’s Asia Trophy in Beijing’s Worker’s Stadium. But only around a quarter of tickets have so far sold. Supporters, it seems, will only pay to see the teams they care about.

China is a notoriously difficult market to crack, and numerous English clubs have been burned trying to do so.

Everton were forerunners there, in 2002 signing a sponsorship deal with communications giant, Keijan. As part of the deal they had Chinese international midfielder, Li Tie – the so-called “Chinese Beckham” – added to its roster.

Everton initially had grand ambitions to use the goodwill and publicity generated by Li Tie to “break” the Chinese market and raise huge revenues from merchandising and by selling online broadcast rights. But these soon floundered on Li Tie’s inability to cut it in the EPL and Chinese consumers unwillingness to buy expensive merchandise on the back of his presence.

A club insider, heavily involved in Everton’s China plans, said: “It’s a good idea, there’s lots of potential. But no one really knows where to start. Having Li Tie isn’t enough. The club really needs to be winning things to get fans. And even then it’s still just potential for now. Not many Chinese people have £50 ($82) for an Everton shirt.”

In 2004 Keijan cancelled its sponsorship and Everton’s dreams of conquering the east died, although they maintain a sporadically updated Mandarin website.

Since then clubs ranging from Manchester City and Sheffield United to Stockport County and even tiny Accrington Stanley, whose League Two attendances hover just above the 1,000 mark, have tried, without discernable success, to crack China.

Chinese consumers are “too discerning” to be taken in by this approach, says Aline Conus, CEO of Shanghai-based marketing and luxury goods company She advises leading French clubs on setting up in China and says that being an established name in the west is not enough.

“The main difficulty for many European businesses when entering the Chinese market is they look at opportunities with a very European perspective,” she told World Football Insider. “Instead they should first try to understand the local business state of mind and second look at what opportunities there are from that perspective,”

Nor does winning trophies necessarily capture fans in the Asian market. Chelsea, EPL champions in 2005 and 2006, still only have “few fans” in Malaysia, says Harbir Gill.

“You could win the FA Cup like Tottenham did in the 1980s and get a following, but you couldn’t do that now,” he says. “I don’t think Portsmouth could have come out here after winning the FA Cup last year and people would start to follow them. It’s just not going to happen.”

The Ultimate Prize

But if the Asian market is so comprehensively sewn up by Liverpool and Manchester United that even Chelsea find it hard to compete, what do the likes of West Ham hope to gain from their Chinese tour?

While all the talk from the United camp has been about “important markets” and promoting the club brand, West Ham’s focus on China has been on the football.

"This pre-season, and the matches we will play in China, are going to be very important for us because it will allow us to prepare for the new season in the right way,” its manager Gianfranco Zola said. “The young players will gain more experience and it is going to help us to be stronger and improve on what we have achieved so far."

But the returns from a summer spent touring Asia may not always be immediately obvious.

One Asian football expert told World Football Insider that clubs in the market for a new owner “will put themselves in the shop window.”

“There are plenty of new billionaires around these parts that have more money than brains,” he joked.

Ultimately, however, the biggest prize may not be measured in pounds and dollars.

“Many of these countries EPL teams are visiting will have a say on where the next few World Cups will go,” says Harbir Gill.

“English teams playing in Asia builds on the fact that it is the best league in the World,” he says. “It promotes England’s World Cup bid in the best way that is possible.”

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