Unlocking Asia's saturated market

European teams like Manchester United are struggling to turn mass support and football appeal into revenue.

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The English Premier League is hugely popular globally, none more so than in Asia. Manchester United led the English assault on the Asian market, investing much of their pre-season energy in travelling round Asia seven times since 1995. While many talked up the millions of United's eastern converts, their direct financial value was limited, accounting for less than one per cent of the club's turnover.

United recognise the importance of performing live in the new markets they court, but the suffocating fan hysteria of the Asian tours made them unpopular with players and left management concerned about the physical condition of their prime assets after extensive flights and debilitating games in soaring temperatures. Playing against the likes of a Singapore XI is hardly the sternest of pre-season tests either.

Rampant counterfeiting and lower-wage economies affected United's ability to replicate the merchandise success they had achieved in the UK. Why would a Thai fan of the Manchester club buy an official shirt for £50 (Dh282) when they could pick up a convincing replica (of a replica) for £5? United now go to the wealthier Asian countries like Japan, and South Korea, picking up lucrative match fees and regularly playing to crowds of 60,000. Second or third-string United teams, with one or two star names, are dispatched to traditional pre-season grounds like Ireland, Wales or provincial England to appease the locals.

United have found much competition in Asia, not least the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. Real purchased David Beckham to crack the Asian market and it initially paid off. In 2004, Madrid signed contracts worth US$2 million (Dh7.3m) a game while United were charging about $500,000 less. The Spaniards attracted bigger crowds but did themselves no favours. Two promoters went bankrupt after the public turned against weakened, posturing and seemingly uninterested Real teams in which Beckham barely appeared.

A series of critical editorials in the Beijing media suggested that local fans of European football were becoming more discerning about attending live pre-season games, claiming over-saturation. Beijing's 70,000-capacity Workers Stadium was just over a third full when United played there in 2005. When United had last been in China in 1999, 78,000 paid to see them in Shanghai. The lessons were not lost on United. The Old Trafford club now send their strongest teams, but the climate is still mixed. A Mandarin-language version of the club's magazine flopped and television audiences plummeted in China when the Premier League was switched to a little-known pay-per-view channel.

More than 300 million Chinese fans watched Manchester City v Everton on CCTV public television in 2003, the match's appeal largely explained by the presence of a Chinese player on both sides. Now less than one per cent of that audience can see Premier League football and audiences have dropped to as low as 30,000 in a country of 1.3 billion people. And the problem remains for the league and the clubs: how to turn such potentially vast support into revenue.

"Manchester United arguably have the largest fan base of any football club in the world, but they have failed so far to produce a genuine revenue breakthrough in Asia," said Tom Cannon, professor of sports finance at Buckingham Business School. "If you take out the broadcasting side, there has been far more huff than puff." @Email:sports@thenational.ae