Friday, March 09, 2007

Discovering Liverpool's "massive" Asian fan base

When George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the new American owners of English Premier League club Liverpool, spoke about their plans to raise the club’s profile in Asia, James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo sought out the views of Asia's major promotors of European football to test the assumptions. ESPN STAR Sports is now in its sixth year of showing the Premier League and has just landed significant Asian rights for the next three years. The Singapore-based broadcaster is a joint venture between ESPN, America’s largest cable sports broadcaster and News Corporation Limited.

ESPN STAR Sports commentator and former England and Liverpool star, Steve McMahon, knows better than most what vast business potential there is for English football in Asia. “It really is crazy,” he told Pearce. “We came over to do the FA Cup final on site in Cardiff last year and our box was next to the BBC’s. Our producer and myself were chatting to Alan Hansen and his producer and out of interest I asked them what kind of viewing figures the BBC would get. He said it was pretty good and they were looking at between 15 and 16 million. I asked our producer what ratings we would get and he said about 600 million – that just highlights the scale of what we’re talking about. The viewing figures in Asia are on a different planet and there’s a huge market. People I speak to in England just can’t get their head around how many people are watching.”

Presenter and commentator John Dykes said: “On any given Premier League match night we hit as many as 150 million households, so if you multiply that by the number in each household you get some idea of our audience. We’ve also got research that suggests around 70% of Asian viewers watch matches in either bars or food courts. On a Saturday we show three live matches in a row on one channel and on our other channel we’ll have two more matches. On a Sunday we show two live matches and then there are our preview and review shows during the week. Our relationship with Sky Sports means we’re able to use their material. When we do a Saturday night, we will be sitting in Singapore with a couple of guests and we always have a guest live in our London studio.”

Executive producer Andy Tait said: “Singaporeans aren’t a great gauge of your average Asian football fan as they tend to be a bit quieter and reserved. But when we get out around Asia to do the roadshows, the level of recognition on the streets is incredible. Steve gets mobbed everywhere he goes. In Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia they are bonkers and will happily queue up outside a hotel lobby for five hours to get Steve’s autograph.”

While Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have actively targeted the lucrative Asian market, Liverpool have been slower to react and are now eager to make up for lost time. But despite their rivals’ best efforts to change fans’ allegiances, McMahon insists the Reds’ deep rooted popularity across the continent remains undiminished. “It was interesting to hear the new owners saying they see Asia as a big focal point for the future,” he said. “They are going to target that market and rightly so. Despite the lack of Premiership success in the last two decades, Liverpool are still arguably the biggest club in Asia. You get some Chelsea and Arsenal fans but in general people either follow Liverpool or Man United. When I travel around, I’m shocked by how popular Liverpool are. The club means a lot to so many people and it’s all down to history. I think people in England can be cocooned and don’t appreciate what massive opportunities there are.”

Presenter Dykes added: “I lived in Hong Kong in the 80s and back then the only football we got was the occasional English live match and a one hour weekly highlights show. As that was Liverpool’s hey-day, they really won the hearts of football fans. Some people may think Asians change their team depending on who wins the title each year but what’s extraordinary is the loyalty they’ve demonstrated. Support for Liverpool has been passed down generations and if they’ve got their wits about them Liverpool will capitalise on that now.”

Each club has approached the Asian market in a different way. Manchester United have opened up superstores and embarked on lucrative pre-season tours. Arsenal have franchised out soccer schools throughout the continent, while Chelsea struck a deal through the Asian Football Confederation to develop their brand in China. The partnership includes a Chinese language website and player exchanges.

“With the biggest TV audience for the Premiership in the world, it’s no surprise that there’s so much interest from British clubs,” Dykes said. “Man United have worked tremendously hard to establish themselves in Asia and have tried to saturate the market. But without really doing anything Liverpool still have this massive support. The big clubs have gone about it in different ways so it will be interesting to see what Liverpool do.”

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