Moving the Goalposts

Elisha Chauhan looks at whether the AFC (Asian Football Confederation)’s decision to expand the number of teams in its Asian Cup will affect the event’s commercial attraction.

For the last six years, UEFA has received criticism in its decision to increase in the number of teams that participate in its European Championship from 2016. The move, critics argue, to increase the number of teams from 16 to 24, will reduce the quality of the competition and negatively impact TV audiences.

The AFC, however, has also decided to increase the number of national teams from 16 to 24 at its flagship Asian Cup beginning from the 2019 edition. Though the quality of football between the top and bottom-ranked teams is less prominent compared to its European counterpart, the problem of quality versus quantity still exists.

During the recent 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers, for example, the teams that finished last in each of the five groups only managed to win two games out of the 30 they played between them – both of which were won against the second-bottom placed teams in the respective groups.

However, sports agency WSG (World Sport Group) and the AFC’s exclusive marketing partner, believes that the team expansion will not have a negative effect on the continental tournament’s viewing figures.

“We think the team expansion is a great idea,” WSG CEO Andrew Georgiou told SportBusiness International. “It is another part of the development of Asian football, and I think it demonstrates the growing strength of football in this part of the world.”

Georgiou argues that the additional participating nations will inevitably bring in higher viewing figures from those regions, and he also believes that these countries will tune into the Asian Cup in its entirety rather than just their respective football teams, who are unlikely to reach the final stages of the competition.

“I think the expansion will broaden the scope of interest to additional countries around Asia, so the tournament will be more inclusive of a number of nations who will qualify now. Therefore, they will have a more vested interest in who becomes Asian champion,” he adds.

“Along with that, the value of the interest and the audience that it brings with it – whether that is on TV, social media or stadium attendances – will not only financially contribute to the event in terms of commercial value, but will also contribute to the value of the tournament as a whole.”

Finding a Balance

Despite the initial increase in viewers from new markets, the question still remains as to whether the expansion will dilute the quality of entertainment, and consequently reduce interest, particularly in the early stages of the Asian Cup.

“Obviously, quality versus quantity is a big consideration when this sort of change is being made, but I don’t think the change we’re proposing here will compromise quality,” says Georgiou. “As the quality of football develops, you want to have more teams being able to qualify, who themselves will be inspired to develop their quality of football.

“In fact, I think the team increase is more a reflection of the quality that now exists in Asian football, and also the courage the AFC had to make this decision. The AFC can see the emerging quality of football in Asia; it is bigger, broader and better than it has ever been.

“We are expecting to see a really healthy jump in viewership numbers, but we are not going to quantify that, because it’s more of an art than a science.”

AFC (Asian Football Confederation) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa approved the Asian Cup expansion in April this year (Photograph: Getty Images)

The Big Boys

There is no guarantee that the more prominent football teams will feel as supportive of the expansion, however, as they will have to play more games that could compromise player performances and their ability to reach the final stages of the competition.

“The expansion is good for smaller Asian countries, but is it good for the bigger teams like Australia? Possibly less so,” Julian Jackson, chief content officer at sports rights and marketing agency TSA (Total Sports Asia), told SportBusiness International.

“They are not going to be deliriously happy about it, because firstly they are going to have to play more games to qualify, and the quality of those games is not going to be great.”

There is also an argument that, rather than increase the number of teams in the flagship competition, the AFC should introduce a separate, second-tier tournament for smaller nations. This way, the lower-ranked teams have a chance to develop – and to actually win silverware – and the Asian Cup can commercially prosper by being a high-quality and entertaining tournament where every match counts. That, too, could potentially generate greater global interest in the Asian Cup, rather than it just targeting fans in Asia.

Jackson – who is based in TSA’s Malaysian office – also disagrees with Georgiou that additional participating nations will have an interest in every game of the Asian Cup, and instead believes that audiences are only interested in their own team’s fixtures.

“Do Malaysians want to see China versus Australia? Not as much, and the TV viewership will already reflect that,” he says. “It’s not like in Europe where Germany versus Holland will still attract a big TV interest in the UK, France and Russia. It’s a different dynamic – it’s very home-nation focused.

“So will the TV viewership reduce if the number of teams expands? Yes, if you’re a viewer in one of the more developed football nations.”

Bigger and Better?

In two years’ time, UEFA’s European Championship will feature 24 teams for the first time. Compared to Euro 2012, when 16 teams competed, two extra groups and an extra knockout round will be introduced. A total of 51 games will be played, compared with 31 games in the previous tournament.

The increase was approved by the UEFA Executive Committee in September 2008. Explaining the rational of the increase, European football’s governing body said: “This historic decision gives middle-ranked countries a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament, thereby expanding the fanbase directly reached, and increasing the number of matches played and boosting the overall stadium capacity.”

“There are now at least 24 teams of the required strength to compete effectively,” added UEFA’s then general-secretary David Taylor. “Perhaps that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, but we have the numbers to make a 24-team tournament a success in Europe.”

However, UEFA president Michel Platini has also expressed a desire to increase the number of nations from 32 to 40. His comments, made in October 2013, didn’t go down quite as well, attracting criticism that a move would dilute the quality of the competition.

Patrick Nally, founder of sports marketing agency West Nally, told SportBusiness International at the time that an increase in teams also puts further pressure on host nations that are already struggling with financial and infrastructural demands.

“Increasing the size of the tournament inevitably places greater strain on the host nation and, as we have seen from events in Brazil [preparing to host the 2014 World Cup], the public mood for funding major sports events from public money appears to have shifted significantly. It is unlikely that the resistance will be confined to Brazil,” he said.

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