Surekha Ragavan
Jul 30, 2019

Game on: Local v. international sports leagues in Asia

Homegrown sporting leagues in countries like Thailand and the Philippines have the advantage of hyperlocal audiences — but how do they fare in sponsorship value against big names such as the NBA and EPL?

Passionate Thai football fans cheer on their national team
Passionate Thai football fans cheer on their national team

Local sporting leagues are growing quickly and surely in this part of the world with more major events and increased engagement, particularly in Southeast Asia. 

“In all the markets, without fail, there’s been an increase in the middle income population groups," outlines Claude Ringuet, former head of Repucom's Southeast Asia division, in a recent report by Nielsen Sports. "There’s greater disposable income to spend on enjoying sport and entertainment. This applies to interest in ownership of local clubs and in some cases significant global franchises." 

Here, we take a look at the rise of three local sports leagues in Asia, gauging their potential value to brands against the major international leagues. 

Football in Thailand: EPL v. Thai League 1

Football is the most followed sport in Asia, but if one country had to take the mega-fan prize in the region, it would be Thailand. The country's obsession with the game all began when the English Premier League (EPL) arrived in the country some 20 years ago, the first and only international football league made available to Thai fans. Asian brands started looking seriously at the domestic football scene around five years later — and the fans followed. 

Paul Poole, a Bangkok-based independent marketing consultant who works closely with brands and local teams, says that what started out as around 100 fans watching a live domestic game has now grown into a tiered league system with 126 teams playing across four divisions, which is more than the number of professional teams in the UK.  

“Thailand is a big country and a huge economy. There’s a lot of spending power. So if brands are looking to enter the Thai market, then one of the stronger [passion points] is football. And obviously brands are more familiar with engaging with football as well, so perhaps it’s more comfortable for them because they’ve done it in other parts of the world,” says Poole.

Thai League 1 – the top tier, featuring 16 of the best clubs – is where brands want to be, he continues. “Those are the guys getting all the commercial sponsorship and all the matches are televised live. The lower levels are still serious about football, but there’s less money being invested and no live broadcast. It’s really about that top level."

Buriram United FC, for instance, one of Poole’s clients, have done so well commercially around their matches that they’re now looking to diversify their sponsorship offerings. “They’re now asking, ‘Well hang on, how do we grow what we have?’” says Poole.

“They’re looking to extend to Muay Thai and other sports to actually attract other Thai brands that are not conflicting with their interests. It’s also not just about Chang beer sponsoring Buriram and paying them a load of money; it’s about activations and the different experiences you can have beyond the stadium.”

Buriram United have won multiple Thai League Championships, and is considered to be one of the best teams in Thailand

So do these successful local Thai League 1 teams now measure up to the mammoth English and European leagues? According to Poole, the EPL is not going anywhere in Thailand and local leagues are not on par just yet.

“Liverpool, for example, is hugely popular here. If you were to ask every other Thai what team they support, they would say Liverpool,” he says, quoting a survey conducted in 2014 which revealed that Thai fans numbered 3.5 million on Liverpool’s Facebook page, the biggest group from one nationality. British fans came in third, behind Indonesian supporters.

Aside from the EPL, German and Spanish leagues Bundesliga and La Liga, who have found the football sponsorship landscape in Europe drying up, are also aggressively pushing their way into the Thai market, offering e-sports and women’s academies as well as working with national teams.

“[The European leagues] are doing all that to increase their fanbase in Thailand – not because they necessarily want Thai fans, but because they see that there’s a lot of money being spent by Thai brands in football. You've got some major Thai brands that started as domestic brands but are now global brands, and they want some of that sponsorship dollar. I mean, all these Thai brands are spending in the EPL,” comments Poole.

Another reason brands like Chang and Singha want to sponsor international football is to get around advertising restrictions, he continues. “They’re actually not bothered about the English fans, they’re bothered about the Thai fans who are watching the matches live on TV here because alcohol promotion is illegal in Thailand.”

Despite the undefeatable success of the international leagues in Thailand, the local leagues and teams' power comes from their ability to build fan bases in their respective provinces, groups that are potential goldmines for international brands.

Buriram, for example, has helped put its namesake province on the map. “Before this, to foreigners and even to some people in parts of Thailand, a name like Buriram was unrecognisable,” says Poole. “There are a lot of loyal fans now. 15 years ago, you might have seen people wearing replicas of Liverpool shirts, but now you might see more people wearing replicas of Buriram shirts in Bangkok.”

Basketball in the Philippines: NBA v. PBA

Basketball may be an inherently American sport but it’s just as integral to the societal fabric of the Filipinos. The sport was introduced to the national curriculum when the Philippines was colonised by America in the early 1900s; fast forward to 1975, and the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA) was founded, the second oldest basketball league in the world after the NBA and Asia’s first professional sports league.

“Basketball is the number one sport for Filipinos,” says Marvin Espiritu, sports marketing consultant and co-founder of Espiritu Manotoc Basketball Management. “What attracted the Filipinos to basketball is the way the game is very fast-paced, the scoring is quick, and it’s very exciting. Every possession you had back then, [the players] tried to score. And it involves a lot of jumping and running – we are fascinated by this ability.”

The rivalry between NBA legends Robert Jaworski and Ramon Fernandez in the '70s and '80s also helped to fuel the craze, Espiritu says.

It’s no surprise, then, that the PBA is a huge advertising platform for Filipino brands. Beer label San Miguel, telco firm Talk & Text, milk company Alaska and paint company Rain or Shine are all owners of teams within the PBA and this allows their brand to reach international basketball fans, many of whom consist of the millions of Filipinos who reside overseas.

As is the case with football in Thailand, however, this success does not amount to the PBA ‘overtaking' the NBA in terms of its following in the Philippines. According to Espiritu, the Filipinos are big on both leagues, but one is usually also a fan of the NBA if they’re a fan of the PBA.

One advantage for brands associated with the PBA is that tournaments take place all year round, whereas the NBA is more seasonal. This means year-long exposure for brands.

However, PBA is different from other leagues in that its sponsorship model doesn’t work around teams or players. The PBA consists of 12 teams, each of which is privately owned by a brand, and these brands make up the PBA. If a new brand wants to come in to own a team, PBA members have to access the brand and vote them in.

“The brand wanting to come in has to open their financial books. If they are capable in really sustaining a team and its marketing, the 12 teams will then vote them in or see about selling an existing franchise,” explains Espiritu. “If I am a brand, I cannot simply come in and tell the PBA ‘Here’s a couple of million dollars; in exchange, put my name on my jersey’. Once you own a franchise, you’re there for the long run.”

That being said, franchises within the PBA can be bought and sold. For instance, the Kia Picanto team was rebranded as Columbian Dyip after Columbian Autocar Corporation took over the franchise in 2018. But because of the contractual binds with brands that own PBA teams, brands outside of the PBA are not allowed to partner up with players.

“The NBA is a players’ league – the player has the power. Whereas the PBA is an owner’s league. For the PBA, it focuses on the rivalry between the teams instead of rivalry between the players,” says Espiritu.

How can brands cash in if they’re not in it for the long haul? The options are unfortunately more limited compared to a traditional sponsorship model like the NBA, but one possibility is to partner up with broadcast networks by buying ad spots.

It looks like the PBA has a long way to go until international brands develop serious interest, but some pick-up is beginning with South Korean brands. Over the last decade or so, the Filipinos have cultivated a keen interest in South Korean culture.

“Aside from the fact that there are [tens of thousands] of Filipinos in Korea, I think internationally, our national teams have had a long rivalry in Asia. The Korean basketball landscape is closely monitoring the Philippines basketball landscape,” says Espiritu.

Basketball in China: NBA v. CBA

In China too, the basketball craze is unstoppable. The second most followed sport in China after football, the game is being elevated by the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). And while the NBA in China still gives the CBA a run for its money, the latter is playing catch up with a strategy that revolves around distinguishing its fanbase and branding, rather than copying the style of the NBA.

“The core values of American basketball are around victory and fighting and sportsmanship. It’s very American-style,” says Yuhai Chen, strategist at Superunion, a brand agency with CBA as a client. “But the Chinese have their own values when competing, so the CBA is trying to find its own definition of what sportsmanship looks like in China. And this means that basketball fans will be more engaged in China.”

NBA legend Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming, the chairman of the CBA

The NBA focuses on the journeys of star players, for instance, sometimes highlighting their rags-to-riches stories to portray 'the American dream'. The CBA, on the other hand, is more hip and young, and a platform for millennials to “express themselves”, according to Chen.

Consequently, non-endemic brands are partnering up with the CBA through fashion and music, all hoping to find new, interactive ways to connect with young Chinese people. Chen adds that the local league, being targeted, is a good option for brands looking to reach regional audiences within China, whereas the NBA is a good platform if they’re after wider coverage.

“The connection between CBA and Chinese fans is more engaged and deeper," he says. "NBA of course has a lot of star players and people like that, but if you think of CBA as a local brand, it really taps into Chinese sportsmanship and culture."

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