Every year, around 1.5 million Chelsea Football Club fans squeeze through the turnstiles at Stamford Bridge in West London to watch their beloved team play at home. For any major sports brand, selling tickets, filling stadiums and creating memorable live experiences is a big priority. Sellout stadiums not only drive massive revenues, it’s also where fans develop life-long relationships with a club.
But Adrian New, Chelsea’s managing director for Asia-Pacific, isn’t too concerned about the 1.5 million who show up to buy tickets at the home ground. He’s got his eye on the majority of the club’s claimed 509 million-strong global fan base that don’t.
“Every Chelsea fan wants to see them play and to get close to the players, but frankly, it’s almost impossible for 90 per cent of them,” New says. “So how do you maintain love for a brand that actually they physically can’t touch? That’s the challenge. I can’t think of another product that’s quite like that. It’s like managing a long-distance relationship.”
With a goal to grow Chelsea’s global fan base to 1 billion by 2020, New has his work cut out—although the fact that the club secured the English Premier League title last week certainly doesn't hurt.
Traditionally, geography has played a big part in determining those fans. If you were born in West London within a few miles of Stamford Bridge, the chances were you’d grow up to be a Chelsea fan, New says. But West London hasn’t grown any bigger and the number of fans living in the area today is little different to what it was 20 years ago. The real growth is coming from elsewhere, much of it in Asia.
“Seventy per cent of our annual growth is always going to come from this region,” New says. “It’s a very different business when you’re managing a fan base that’s geographically very concentrated, versus running a business where every year you’re going to pick up another 100 million fans, that are spread from India to China to Australia to Japan.
“The challenge is, how do you turn those new supporters from someone that follows us and likes us, into someone that loves us?”
New knows only too well about the emotional connection that fans can develop with football clubs. He has been a Chelsea supporter since he was six years old, after his dad took him to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea play against Arsenal. It wasn’t a great day for his dad: he was an Arsenal fan; Chelsea won 2-1; and young Adrian was converted to the team playing in blue. “And that was that,” New says.
So when New received a call from someone at Chelsea in 2011 to discuss an opportunity at the club he had supported his whole life, he thought it was a friend playing a prank.
“It was completely out of the blue,” he says. “A guy rang me and said, ‘It’s Chelsea Football Club, we’d like to talk to you about a job.’ And I was thinking, ‘Of course it is. Who is it really?’”
New began his career in sport in 1992 with Visa International in Europe and as their head of marketing, where he managed a number of big sponsorship programmes, including the Olympics, English Premier League and Rugby World Cup. In 2002, he formed a sports marketing consultancy, Redmandarin, and moved to Singapore to establish its Asian arm. “Like many expats, I intended to come to Asia for a year to set the business up and then go home.”
When New took on the role to lead Chelsea’s operations in Asia in 2011, the club was already well into a new era of success under billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. Since his £140 million (US$208 million) takeover in 2003, Chelsea has won more major trophies than any other English club in the same period.
Chelsea’s presence in Asia during those dozen years has grown at a staggering pace, and New is in no doubt that the booming fan base is a direct reflection of the club’s success on the pitch. Before winning the Premier League in 2005, Chelsea had around 26 million fans globally. Today, New says, that number has grown to 509 million.
“Not many brands will have grown like that in 10 years,” New says. “All of that has been driven by the success that we’ve had on the pitch.”
For football fans in Asia, success is critical, New says. A team can never win every game, of course, “but what you can do is promise them that you’re going to try”.
“Fickle is not a word I would use, but I think there’s an expectation from the fans in Asia that if you’re not going to continue being successful, I don’t have to support you. So I think the depth of the emotional bond is a little bit different, and probably a little bit more fragile.”
One common hurdle that many brands face, but is not an issue for New, is generating content. With match highlights, training, player interviews and a constant stream of club news and updates, he says the content takes care of itself, allowing the club to get by without using any agencies. “We don’t need to. I mean, why do you work with agencies? Because you need content. I don’t need content — I’ve got it. We just need to understand the platforms.”
New says one of the main challenges for the club is to make sure that the ways to engage with the content are made as made as simple as possible. One of the first things he did when he took on the role at Chelsea was to create local-language Facebook accounts and website content, including Thai, Bahasa, Chinese and Japanese. The club has four people based in Singapore handling content, much of which is translated from the UK. It also recently hired a journalist to generate more local content. The team posts six stories every day, seven days a week, in each market. Chelsea now boasts 62 million social media connections, across multiple channels, including Facebook, Twitter, WeChat and Instagram.
The club has not been slow to boost its presence in the region, predominantly through large, Asia-based partnerships. In February, Chelsea announced a new shirt sponsorship deal with Japanese tyre firm Yokohama Rubber. Reported to be worth US$300 million, the five-year deal became the second most lucrative in Premier League history, worth over double the club’s previous contract with Korea-based electronics giant Samsung. A Chelsea statement said the deal with Yokohama would launch the club into “a new era of innovative commercial partnerships”.
New says the deal with Samsung, though coming to an end, has been a huge success for both parties.
“If you look back to when we did the deal with Samsung, they were probably only about the fourth or fifth biggest handset in the world at that time, over the course of that nine years, I think the growth of the club and of Samsung in some ways mirrored each other.”
New believes that the deal with Yokohama will be equally beneficially for both Chelsea and the Japanese tyre firm. With its own successful domestic league, New says Japan isn’t currently one of Chelsea’s big growth areas and an English club is yet to dominate the market.
“You’ve got 100 million people living there, so there’s a big potential audience. So, to have a strong Japanese partner will really help us in that market.”
For Yokohama, the potential return on investment is clear. The Barclays Premier League continues to be the most watched football league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories. The combined TV audience for Premier League games is estimated to be in the region of 4.7 billion. When Chelsea steps out onto the pitch for the first time next season, the Yokohama brand will be instantly visible all around the world.
“For any brand today, when you look at what you can do that is going to offer global engagement, build the brand almost instantly on a global basis, I’d challenge anyone to name any other property that can do it as quickly as the Premier League can.”
- 2011 MD Asia-Pacific, Chelsea FC
- 2007 SVP, sales, World Sport Group
- 2004 Head of ad sales, CNBC
- 2001 MD Asia, Redmandarin
- 1989 Head of marketing, Visa EMEA
- Born London
- Lives Singapore
- Family three children
- Interests aside from watching Chelsea reading books
- Favourite Chelsea player of all time Ray Wilkins