In the world of soccer, it is difficult to pin down exactly what the commodity being provided is. Are teams providers of results and trophies? Of dazzling performances? Of a club brand and identity? Or do they deal in history and folklore? A fan will enjoy a match day for the atmosphere and the thrill of the competition, but do soccer teams truly differ in the way they provide either? The atmosphere is often separate from the club themselves; it belongs to the supporters. And, as for the thrill, it is difficult not to be enthralled by tens of thousands of people watching every kick of the ball with bated breath.
Regardless of their product or its quality, in no other industry is the consumer quite so loyal to their chosen brand as soccer. Changing brands is unthinkable, and fan following often has far more deciding factors than simply who is offering the ‘best’ product. What the product essentially comes down to is entertainment, coupled with a strong - though sometimes forced - identity. With the European powerhouse that is Chelsea under two miles away, why should a child from London’s SW6 decide to follow Fulham?
Familial connections to a club come into it too, as does pressure from peers in early schooling, and the decision to support a particular team, though initially arbitrary, can become a significant part of a person’s life as their attachment grows. Head further east, though, and the Asian market of soccer fans has far less of a one-club mentality. Given soccer in Asia is, in many ways, in its infancy, the consumer is far less swayed by familial, historical or, naturally, locational ties to a particular team. It is not uncommon for a fan to follow both Arsenal and Bayern Munich, or even two teams from the same league. Across Asia, the soap opera that is English Premier League football, the hard and fast style of the Bundesliga and the class of La Liga are all big business.
But the Asian passion for soccer, though less territorial, is unquestionable. Dan Byrne from Spiel magazine refers to Asian supporters as ‘Iron Fans’ to reflect their fanaticism, and a survey of League Managers by Barclays claims that the most passionate fans in the world can be found in Asia. The Premier League takes precedence above all others, and English clubs are spending more and more time and money focusing their efforts on the Asian market. Every two years, three Premier League teams compete in the Premier League Asia Trophy along with one Asian club, Liverpool took their 2015 tour to Thailand and Malaysia and both Manchester United and Manchester City will be competing in the International Champions Cup in China this summer.
Manchester United’s presence in Asia is relatively longstanding. According to a interactive map created by Twitter, the Red Devils lead the way in India, China, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. The figures are reflected in the club’s social media following; with 76.1 million followers on Facebook and Twitter England’s most successful club are ahead of second-placed Chelsea by more than 20 million, a disparity reflected in their revenue.
In fact, income from Asia has become a vital revenue stream for English clubs, something Chelsea have well-exploited alongside as a product of their successes on the pitch; the London club’s recent success has seen their foothold in the world’s most populated continent solidify. Chelsea are now the most followed English club in Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos and Nepal, and are only marginally second in South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. Chelsea’s four league victories and Champions League trump in the past 12 years have seen their popularity skyrocket, with Jose Mourinho’s always fascinating personality twice adorning the Blues’ managerial bench and providing endless entertainment.
According to Danny Lee of the South China Morning Post, over 70% of the world’s 2.1 billion soccer fans follow the Premier League. The potential revenue for the competition is tremendous, with Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia alone paying £650 million between them in TV rights deals from 2013-16. Of Deloitte’s top 20 richest clubs in the world, nine are Premier League clubs, constituting 45% of the revenue. The dominance is only set to continue, as a lucrative new TV rights deal kicks in next year and the Premier League’s presence in Asia continues to outgrow that of their competition. Asian fans may not have quite the same ardent one-club mentality as their European counterparts. In a sense, they can change their football club far more freely than Cantona would’ve envisioned. What is certain, though, is that the Premier League has conquered Asia, and it is there to stay.