One by one they took to the pitch. The business bosses of FIFA, La Liga and Arsenal FC standing not on grass but on stage at Singapore’s All That Matters conference yesterday, making their cases that Asia indeed matters to the future success of the sport and their businesses.
“We definitely want to go to the big markets in China,” FIFA chief commercial officer Philippe Le Floc’h declared, noting the considerable investments Chinese brands made at the World Cup in Russia last year. (For more, see "What's that jumble of Chinese characters at the World Cup?")
“India is the next nut to crack, so we’ll be in touch with Indian companies,” he further enthused, noting he was close to signing a large Indian brand in 2018, but now hopes to bring it and potentially others to Qatar in 2022.
“Asia is an absolutely critical part of our plans," Arsenal FC managing director Vinai Venkatesham next added. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that." A cursory look at his club’s Facebook followers will tell you why he’s stating the obvious. Indonesia boasts roughly three times the number of Arsenal fans on Facebook than back home in the UK, while four of the club's five top Facebook-fan markets are here in Asia.
While Arsenal wants to develop the sport through social media, alongside charity work and fan engagement in the region, there’s no question such rapidly growing legions of supporters are irresistible to its global commercial partners like Emirates and Adidas, as well as regional companies like Japan’s Konami and Chinese payments technology firm BNN. Just last week, confetti rained down on a stage in Phnom Penh as Arsenal announced a new partnership with Ganzberg beer throughout Cambodia. Such deals are why Arsenal has a dedicated sales office in Singapore along with a content-production team in Shanghai.
Not to be left out, La Liga president Javier Tebas Medrano shared how his league is wooing Asian audiences by scheduling matches at friendlier times. “Before the games happened in the middle of the night," he said through translation. "Now six of 10 games played in Spain are in good time zones for Asia. This has helped a lot in terms of engagement in Asia.”
Developing Asian talent
La Liga admittedly has been slower to develop in this region, Medrano said, since the league had a much closer affinity to Latin America but suffered compared to Bundesliga and others from a lack of Asian talent.
However, gradual development and the addition of players from Japan, China and Korea has really helped, Medrano noted.
For now, the clubs and leagues may be happy to leverage their Asian fan bases with corporate sponsors, but they know that to ultimately be successful they need the sport to develop its own local superstars.
“The raison d'être of FIFA is to develop football and support national associations in all corners of the planet,” Le Floc’h said, while admitting FIFA’s own struggles during recent years in rehabilitating its “toxic brand” reputation.
But in massive countries like China and India there are still may challenges, despite the growing enthusiam for the sport. Until they received government encouragement to develop local talent, clubs in countries like China initially focused investments heavily in bringing over high-priced talent from Europe and Latin America, Le Floc'h said.
“This is a short-term strategy. You have to make room eventually to develop young players. The future of the sport in the country has got to be having more players of that nationality,” he added, saying FIFA would lend support but ultimately the onus will be on the clubs and national federations like the Indian Super League.
While naysayers argue that India will forever be a cricket country, Arsenal's Venkatesham argues that developing winning teams can change that in a hurry. He already sees a younger generation becoming enthusiastic about football, viewing cricket much in the same way the older generation viewed their parents’ enthusiasm for field hockey in the 1960s and '70s which has since dissipated. India, he notes, “is definitely big enough for two sports.”
As for China, Le Floc'h feels its ascendence as a football powerhouse is inevitable. “The moment that China will qualify for the World Cup it will be absolutely crazy,” he said, noting that China will also want to play host the World Cup. “I don’t know that it’s an ‘if’ but ‘when’.”
More women in football
The enthusiasm and glow still surrounding the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, both commercially and in popularity, is also fueling the drive for more female involvement as both players and supporters, which doesn’t escape the football brands.
The success took everyone by surprise, Le Floc’h said. “All the viewership records were smashed. It was the perfect storm in the right sense.”
That perfect storm was powered by the #MeToo movement’s demands for greater respect toward women. “It was a happy coincidence where the world was changing at the same time. You had all these movements with diversity, respect and [drive for] more women in parliament,” Le Floc’h said. “For us it was … really about supporting women in their campaign for equality, respect and diversity and people stood behind it.”
For many of the Women’s World Cup brand sponsors, it was an opportunity to use campaigns to drive messages of respect and equality, even if not all succeeded in certain brand recall metrics.
For Arsenal FC, one of the first to set up a women’s team and the self-declared most-successful English women’s football team in history, Venkatesham says he’s seen the impact of the Women’s World Cup in greater broadcast and commercial interest in the team. Mastercard signed on as the first major official partner for Arsenal Women FC in May.
Meanwhile, as FIFA pushes toward its goal to have 60 million women players worldwide by 2026, this part of the world will play a key part, with Asian women’s teams proportionally stronger than the men’s side, led by strong countries like Japan and Thailand.
Football must go hi-tech
Kicking balls into a net may be an old-school sport compared with 21st century contests like drone races. But the importance of using technology to market the sport is not lost on football brands.
La Liga president Javier Tebas Medrano emerged as the most vociferous advocate of using all data and AI platforms at his disposal to better know his audience and be able to react more quickly to their preferences.
Likewise Venkatesham stressed that more granular fan data is proving much more valuable. “When we’re talking to brands we’re talking to them about all those fans we have, how many we actually know and who we can communicate with. We’ve made a huge investment in our CRM system,” the Arsenal MD explained.
The idea behind La Liga’s digital products including its OTT service, Medrano said via translation, is to have a better idea of how fans want to consume to keep them engaged in the sport. All information from web, mobile and smart TVs flows into one single platform and the more aggregated the approach is, the better the experience for the fans is.
Medrano says La Liga can then use artificial intelligence to crunch data and calculate optimal kickoff times, based on who’s at home in Asia interacting with the product to a very small margin of error (around plus or minus 3%).
Leveraging data, of course, is not just good for fans but gives La Liga a better idea of its value and can offer sponsors a much bigger impact knowing they can reach fans engaging with the content at the right time.
Technology will allow a much deeper experience with what we’re watching, Medrano said. “We’ll be able to ask our virtual personal assistants about statistics from various players. This deeper involvement will only make the experience better with what we’re watching,” he said, noting this is in development, not science fiction.
Adopting technology also extends to improving entertainment values, Medrano argued, noting their investments in new production capabilities like 360-degree cameras and aerial shots.
“We have to entertain,” he said, adding that in order to widen their audience outside Spain, the league has to increase the level of production so fans can look forward to high quality dramas unfolding each week.
“If you have great actors, great director, great drama but the quality of the movie is bad no one will watch it. La Liga has great players, but it needs drama. We say we want to produce ten good movies every weekend.”
And much like the Hollywood studios, Medrano says La Liga intends to use AI technology to fight digital piracy so their rights don’t lose their value.
“All sports teams need to understand all this technology.”