The 2023-24 European football season kicked off this past weekend, and amongst the 20 teams in the English Premier League (EPL), three of them prepared for the season in Asia-Pacific.
Reigning EPL champion Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham spent time in the off-season, playing friendlies in Singapore, South Korea and Japan. German Bundesliga champions FC Bayern and French Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) also spent time in Singapore and Japan, respectively.
Aside from showing off their skills on the pitch in the countries they were visiting, clubs also engaged fans off the pitch. For example, Man City held a game night in Seoul and a karaoke session for fans in Tokyo. Meanwhile, PSG created a pop-up space called 'PSG House' in the Nakanoshima Art Museum in Osaka, where fans could meet players and buy PSG merchandise designed by artists.
So, why are the European clubs keen to prepare for their new season in APAC?
Well, the numbers speak for themselves. According to a recent survey by Yahoo, the EPL holds the highest viewership in Singapore, with 43% watching it each season, followed by the UEFA Champions League at 25%. The local Singapore Premier League also ranks third at 18%, surpassing other European leagues such as La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga.
Campaign looks at how each club builds connections with their Asian fan base through data and technology.
One of the most successful clubs in Germany, with 33 Bundesliga titles, Bayern prioritise reaching relevant fans through engaging content centred around a strong football team.
However, it does not stop at content quality alone, Stefan Mennerich, director and authorised media communications officer at Bayern, tells Campaign.
To form an all-encompassing profile of its worldwide supporters, Bayern works with German tech giant SAP to combine information from 52 platforms to create the 'golden fan record'.
The team can employ this data to initiate tailored, multi-channel marketing initiatives to connect with fans via email, mobile, and advertisements.
"We want to nurture interaction and build relationships with fans. Interaction involves sharing, liking, and getting involved, while relationships evolve through registrations, feedback, emails, and direct communication," explains Mennerich.
"After we have established these connections, we consider monetisation. It is important to note that without reach, monetisation is unfeasible. To illustrate, it is like selling a washing machine to a market without potential buyers. The process starts with reach."
Colleen Cummings, vice president of digital marketing and events at sports marketing agency Octagon, explains to Campaign that paid search and paid social are best used to drive a specific action.
"With confidence, you know you are targeting someone who has already done something–reaching your website, purchasing a ticket, or searching for match schedules," says Cummings.
"Instead of predicting what a person might do, you have a near guarantee of what they've done already –and that informs your strategy of what message to serve these local audiences to drive conversion. Then layer on the localised component to target specific team messaging to these fans."
However, despite having a combined social media following of 155 million, the club faces a challenge registering these users in its systems. The goal is to bridge the gap between the numerous fans and the comparatively smaller number of registered users on its website.
"This provides an exceptional opportunity to connect directly with these hands-on fans, a crucial step. We have a substantial fan base in Asia as most of our social media followers, about 95%, are from outside Germany," says Mennerich.
"Around 50% of our registered users are within Germany. This discrepancy indicates much work to be done, especially in Asia."
In APAC, the club has two offices in Thailand and China, as it runs its marketing outreach in Bangkok and a football school in Shanghai. While it does not have an office in Singapore yet, Mennerich says the club is exploring that option.
"Generating revenue is a critical aspect for us. Equally important is establishing connections with companies. For instance, during our visits to Tokyo and Singapore, we engaged in fruitful discussions with companies keen on entering Europe and tapping into our fan base," explains Mennerich.
"These conversations were substantial and promising. Furthermore, with Kim Min Jae, a South Korean player, on board, we are also focused on building contacts there. Establishing connections and networks within the industry and with companies is pivotal, mainly since sponsorship contributes significantly to our revenue streams."
Japan is significant to PSG, with the club fostering ties and various football-related initiatives, like representative offices, academies, and stores in the country.
The club's digital involvement includes social media accounts in Japanese, Line accounts, and a dedicated website. PSG also recently formed a partnership with Japanese game developers Brilliantcrypto.
Outside of Japan, the club has had a presence in APAC, with local offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore. PSG has collaborated with agencies like Dentsu to boost its presence in this region.
"In Asia, we are achieving successes like being China's top online club and opening academies across Korea, Japan, China, and Thailand," Sebastien Wasels, general manager of APAC at PSG, tells Campaign.
"The addition of South Korean player Lee Kang-in elevates viewership, fan engagement, and merchandise sales across Asia. This reinforces our bridge between Asia and our players."
The 'PSG House' pop-up, which the club establishes in each location it tours, is one way the club connects with fans through lifestyle, fashion, gastronomy, culture, and art in each city.
For example, Japan's 'PSG House' showcases the club's collaborations with acclaimed artists like Verdy, Poggy, Makoto Yamaki, and Natsuko Shoji. This is in addition to the club's existing partnership with Jordan and Nike.
"Whether in Los Angeles, Singapore, Osaka, or Tokyo, our aim remains consistent: To offer a glimpse of what Paris and Paris Saint-Germain signify to our fan base and the local audience. This philosophy underlies our collaborations with renowned Japanese artists, evident in the vibrant and artistic range of apparel," explains Wasels.
"These partnerships extend to an array of events that bring fans and partners together, fostering a sense of unity. We aim to create an inclusive environment that brings fans, local communities, and passionate individuals together for a shared and enjoyable experience."
For pop-ups like 'PSG House', Cummings explains geo-targeting is a crucial strategy for clubs like PSG to drive foot traffic and engagement.
This can be done through paid social–targeting specific geos, all the way to partnering with certain media partners that specialise in this type of targeting.
"The club can target someone who has recently been to the stadiums where PSG play during a game and is in a specific mileage from the PSG House. Mobile targeting would be essential to get people on the go," says Cummings.
The English club's pre-season strategy has evolved from local and European fixtures to extensive tours in regions like the USA, Asia, and Australia.
This approach, spanning about two weeks, lets Premier League clubs connect with fans and essential markets outside the regular season. This year, the club's manager Pep Guardiola and his team prioritised training and three scheduled friendlies in Tokyo and Seoul.
The journey also involves a substantial contingent of media and commercial personnel, maximising opportunities in Japan and South Korea. This includes engagements with local fans and the chance for Asian supporters to witness City's success first-hand.
Playing against Yokohama F. Marinos and Bayern Munich in Tokyo, followed by a face-off with Atletico Madrid in Seoul, composed City's pre-season schedule.
A Man City spokesperson tells Campaign the club has a long-held relationship with Asia, visiting several times for pre-season tours, trophy tours and other activations.
As a City Football Group club, Manchester City also benefits from regional knowledge and expertise shared by CFG sister clubs Yokohama in Japan and Sichuan Jiuniu F.C. in China.
"The primary purpose of our pre-season tour visit to Tokyo and Seoul this year was to visit and engage with our fanbase in the region and use the tour to reach potential new fans," says the spokesperson.
"We have tapped into the passionate fanbase through dedicated content and digital activity, aligning with local influencers with market knowledge to experiential activities such as karaoke booth takeovers, treble trophy activations, and more."
These highlights included the club's CGI arrival content which has achieved millions of views. The club's dedicated daily and matchday live shows around training and matches were delivered to its fans in Asia and globally, and more ad-hoc content was captured on a tour that showed its players engaging with local fans.
According to Cummings, Man City most likely used programmatic display ads as they have some of the digital marketplace's lowest click-through rates (CTRs).
"They are an excellent way for personalised messaging to reach targeted audiences. With technological advances, you can integrate different matches, scores, and CTAs within the same piece of content without multiple iterations of creativity," explains Cummings.
"The programmatic display can allow Man City to use dynamic assets to swap key messaging in and out based on real-time match performance and a fan's location. It also provides for paid distribution to be quickly turned on and off based on the time of day to use ad dollars most efficiently."
Man City has several strategic and long-term Asian partners, including Asahi, Nissan and Nexen Tire. The club's pre-season tour provides a platform for these brands to kick start their seasonal activations and benefit from local impact in strategically essential markets.
For example, during this summer's visit to their home market, Asahi has held multiple activations with Man City, including taking three Man City players on a tour of Tokyo subcultures.
"With the tour being one of many opportunities for partners to activate in local markets through club initiatives across the season, Man City has developed a portfolio of methods to measure partnership performance on a global and regional level through tailored media measurement and consumer research to attribute impact across the marketing funnel," the spokesperson says.
Because of specific policies around using paid media to target youth, Cummings says this type of marketing should be used to target parents of soccer-engaged families.
"These types of interests can be targeted explicitly via paid social, as well as using paid search to reach fans searching for relevant keywords around recreational and youth leagues in the area," explains Cummings.
The future of engaging fans
As European football clubs expand their presence in APAC, tech like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and immersive experiences can be incorporated into paid media strategies, offering fans unique and interactive ways to engage with their favourite clubs.
Picture this: A fan wearing AR glasses and sitting in their living room in Tokyo or Sydney. Suddenly, Man City's star player Kevin De Bruyne appears, explaining his top five goals and using the fan's coffee table as the pitch.
That is the future we are heading towards, according to Cummings, and European football clubs have a unique chance to turn it into reality.
"AR and immersive experiences can bring fans closer to the action than ever, adding a new dimension to paid media strategies," explains Cummings.
"It is like taking a free-kick with Roberto Carlos's infamous banana curve; bending the rules of physics and reality to give fans the unexpected."
In addition with AR, clubs could offer virtual meet-and-greets with players, interactive match analysis, or even immersive stadium tours.
Imagine a virtual 'walk' with Man City legend Sergio Agüero down the tunnel at the Etihad Stadium or becoming Man City's goalkeeper Ederson standing between the posts facing a barrage of shots - all from the comfort of fans' home.
"But it is not just about the significant experiences. AR can make everyday interactions memorable, too. Picture scanning a club's logo on your morning coffee cup to reveal the day's top news stories or checking your watch to see real-time match updates during the game," says Cummings.
"In essence, AR can make being a fan of a European football club in APAC feel less like watching from the other side of the world or even watching from the sidelines and more like being in the heart of the action, a bit like being called up from your couch to the bench, to sharing the pitch with your idols. It's a whole new ball game in fan engagement, and the opportunities are as endless as a Guardiola passing drill."
AI can also analyse fan preferences and behaviours, enabling targeted content delivery that resonates with the local audience. Cummings compares this to Man City's style of play under Guardiola, which focuses on intelligent possession and creating tailored opportunities.
She notes the plays, in this space, the data-gathering methods, are not wholly new, but the ability to thoughtfully transform information into meaningful moves at scale is unprecedented.
Just as Guardiola's team uses brilliant passing and movement to control the game and find gaps in the opponent's defence, Cummings says AI helps clubs creatively prevent the narrative by understanding fan preferences and behaviour faster and more clearly than ever.
"We can find those 'gaps' in content consumption that allow us to deliver the right message to the right fans at the right time. Much like City's false nine drops deep to add extra attacking options, AI's predictive analytics adds a strategic depth to marketing efforts, letting you anticipate trends and stay one step ahead," explains Cummings.
"So whether it's a through ball from De Bruyne or a perfectly timed post about him, it's all about understanding the game, creating options, and making that decisive impact. AI, like Man City, is redefining the beautiful game."
Bayern's Mennerich predicts AI is set to play a significant role across various technologies that the club plans to incorporate in the future.
While he cannot single out a specific technology, AI will underpin personalisation and user experience technologies, including enhancing the stadium experience.
For instance, Bayern's future stadium systems will rely on AI for adjusting temperature and other factors like wind conditions during different seasons. This level of automation will extend to personalised services based on individual profiles in the club's database.
"These enhancements will not only extend to our digital platforms but also reflect in the offerings we provide to our fans. While we may not develop AI directly, multiple AI-influenced technologies will serve our fans effectively," explains Mennerich.