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The return of the kings | Making money from seniors sport

ON NOVEMBER 12 football fans in Singapore will be treated to a clash between two of the sport’s famous old rivals, with England taking on Germany at the national stadium.

Like many countries in Southeast Asia, European football is hugely popular in Singapore and more than 20,000 spectators are expected to turn out for the encounter. However, this is no ordinary football match.

The contest is being organised by Masters Football Asia, a company that specialises in bringing famous retired players from the English Premier League to Asia.

On November 14, 2015, more than 30,000 fans turned out for Liverpool against Manchester United in Singapore. Liverpool, fielding the likes of Jerzy Dudek, Steve McManaman, Luis Garcia and Ian Rush, defeated their arch rivals, who included Karel Poborský, Lee Sharpe, Quinton Fortune, Keith Gillespie, Andrei Kanchelskis, Jesper Blomqvist and Louis Saha.

Over tea in downtown Singapore, Masters Football Asia director Ian Holahan outlines just why the events they organise are so popular in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and increasingly in places like China and Abu Dhabi. “The prime audience for a Manchester United and Liverpool game are fans of those clubs,” he says. “There are a lot of them in Southeast Asia and they want a chance to take a photo with their idols when they were growing up.”

That is the key. Hosting events that feature stars of the 80s, 90s and 00s gives sponsors, hotels, hospitality and cities access to fans who have grown up along with the stars. Teenagers on the Old Trafford and Anfield terraces in the 80s may not have had much disposable income, but 30 years later there are lots of middle-aged Manchester United and Liverpool fans around the world with long memories, deep pockets and plenty of passion.

Popularity

It is not just football. Senior events in other sports, such as golf, athletics and tennis, are growing in popularity. Tennis has the ATP Champions Tour. It was Jimmy Connors who had the idea two decades ago, but it was his one-time rival, John McEnroe, who really got the general public excited. His 1997 match with Bjorn Borg at London’s Royal Albert Hall was a big deal in terms of television, tickets and sponsors as fans clamoured to get a glimpse of the two legends.

“The ATP Champions Tour, by its very nature, is well positioned to attract an older demographic, giving fans the opportunity to relive some of the greatest rivalries in the history of men’s professional tennis,” says Simon Higson, the ATP’s corporate communications and PR director.

Not any old Billie or Jean can take part – it is just for the former kings. You also have to have one of the following on your CV: a world No.1 ranking, a Grand Slam semi-final or a Davis Cup title. If in football the age is variable and in golf it is 50, the dividing line in tennis is 35 or you can have been retired from the game two years and be, in this case, male. The names certainly warrant the legend label. As well as McEnroe, the likes of Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker were early adopters. These days you can watch Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic and Tim Henman.

“First and foremost, the value that our events generate tends to point towards corporate investment above tourism,” says Higson. “Having said that, we are proud to attract more than 35,000 fans each year to our marquee year-end event at the Albert Hall in London.”

There are plenty of opportunities for sponsors, “particularly around event-day experiences, with corporate hospitality being a major driver,” Higson adds. “The hospitality experience offered at events such as the Albert Hall in London, in such an iconic venue, can be tough to match.”

Audiences

If these audiences are good for sponsors, they are also good for host cities. London benefits from an injection of a crowd with money to spend just before Christmas, with fans hitting the shops before watching the stars hit the shots.

In 2017 Auckland will host the World Masters Games, a version of the Olympics for athletes aged 35 and older. With 25,000 participants expected, these competitors will also bring plenty of spending power to the city, especially as many of them will arrive with their partners, explains Paul Dunphy of SportBusiness Intelligence.

“It is good for cities, as the people who come have pretty high disposable income and are able to travel around the world,” he says. “They spend big on accommodation, hospitality, food and beverage. The return on investment is pretty high with this event.”

The opportunity for networking is also an attraction and fans and participants not only spend big, but often incur lower costs than some premier events. “The fans are well-behaved and security is minimal – as is the threat of terrorism, as these events are not as high-profile as some other sporting events,” Dunphy says. “These events are becoming increasingly attractive for cities around the world. They are rolling out in North America and Asia too.” There are even discussions about a winter version.

While there is obviously money to be made from the older fans, who enjoy seeing their heroes still playing – and they are the focus of most marketing efforts – those events that can target the younger demographic have bright futures too. “The players on the Champions Tour compete at very high levels, as well as performing in more relaxed environments, and continue to attract audiences of all ages,” says Higson, who points out that the senior events “offer unprecedented and unique access to the legends.”

This is something that can make a difference for younger football fans around the world, as there is a more relaxed atmosphere around the participants.

Closer

Singapore-based former Manchester United and England star Paul Parker has played Masters Football in Asia. He says that when the Premier League teams come to the Far East, players are kept on a tight leash. “The fans out here have realised that these International Champions Cups, when you get the big European teams coming for pre-season, you just can’t get anywhere near the modern-day player,” he adds. “Even if the player wants to meet them, he is not allowed to.”

It’s different when it comes to the Masters, though. “Some of the players retiring now, like Paul Scholes, were playing at the top level until recently. You can get closer to him now. It is the same for most of the players who come. They enjoy talking to fans and actually seeing a little of the places they may have visited briefly with their clubs,” Parker adds.

He also asserts that players are more open and relaxed about corporate duties, and more willing to work with sponsors now they are out of the club environment.

In football the growing trend of top-class players hanging up their boots relatively early, rather than dropping down the leagues as many once did, also helps bring in the younger audience.

“Players are retiring younger, around 35 years old, and we have had a request for Luis Garcia, John Arne Riise and Paul Scholes,” Holahan says. “We do a lot with schools. Two years ago Emile Heskey had only just retired and he came, and we had Robbie Fowler, McManaman, Jerzy Dudek and Didi Hamann, but because Heskey was a recently-retired player, he was more in demand, as the children remembered him.”

Football is perhaps unique among the ‘senior sports’ in that the present fortunes of a club in England can affect interest and demand in the club’s past players, up to a point.

Tottenham’s veterans, such as Darren Anderton, are more in demand in Asia these days, but, according to Holahan, Manchester City’s former players are, as yet, not well-known enough.

China does not have the same history with English football as some other Asian nations, but a general Premier League legends team was well received last year, with Fowler, Anderton and Robert Pirès all scoring.

Consistent

Athletes are retired a long time and there can be a major difference between a tennis player who is 35 and one who is 55. Yet injuries and mismatches are rare, according to Higson. “The legends manage their playing schedules effectively and look after their fitness levels accordingly,” he explains.

McEnroe is still playing and winning titles – most recently at the 2016 Stockholm event, for example. “The promoters tend to select the fields that are reasonably consistent in age.John is very competitive and selective about where he plays, and still plays at a remarkably high level,” Higson adds.

As for the football veterans, in Asia at least there have been developments that have helped players – as Holahan explains. “In England we became famous for five-a-side and that is what we started here in Singapore, but we soon found that fans wanted 11-a-side. This was easier on their knees and it is not as fast,” he says.

The tours also help to encourage retired players to keep in good condition. “A lot of the foreign players stand out as still being fit after they retire, compared to the English players, but many English players have gone through this process of realising there is still an avenue to play football and are becoming fit, as they enjoy the trips and the games, and the money can come in handy too,” he says.

Golf may be more leisurely, but back problems have stopped veterans such as Fred Couples competing at Majors, such as the Masters.

Most of the media around the senior events are suited to the older fans. The Liverpool and Manchester United game was broadcast on Liverpool TV. The England v Germany game will be on BeIN Sports, while the ATP Champions Tour has its own television magazine show.

There is still a lack of engagement with potential younger fans, who may be more techsavvy and spend much of their time online.

"We are open to explore all models, but are certainly finding new media is playing a larger role in our discussions,” says Jamie Jarvis, managing director of the Football Champions Tour, which is organising a worldwide exhibition of 2017 ‘Star Sixes’ games, featuring the likes of Steven Gerrard, Pirès and Deco.

Yet at the moment, as in the 2017 World Masters for example, coverage is expected to be of the local and traditional kind.

“It is highly unlikely that there would be any live coverage of the World Masters,” says Dunphy. “It is also unlikely there would be any internet streaming either.”

Big business

Such legends, or masters, games are becoming increasingly big business and not just in football. In golf there is still gold for the oldies. Bernhard Langer earned $2.52m (€2.29m) in the first nine months of 2016. Winning the senior Champions Classic in June brought in $420,000. It’s not quite the same as the $1.8m on offer for the winner of the US Masters, though for a while this year Langer looked like he would challenge for that. The German shot 73 on the opening day, a score that several of the top players decades younger than his 58 years would have loved. Langer, who first won the event in 1985, was unable to sustain it, but being tied for 24th was impressive.

Organisers of the ATP Champions Tour in tennis are tight-lipped about the kind of prize or appearance money paid out, but obviously the senior pay packets are lighter than their younger counterparts’. “ATP World Tour events generate worldwide media exposure that demands significantly higher rights fees,” Higson says. “The player compensation models between both tours vary as well. On the Champions Tour it is paid through appearance fees, on a player-byplayer basis, with performance-based bonuses offered to players for reaching the latter rounds or winning tournaments.”

It seems that in sport careers do not have to be over by the time athletes are 35. More and more cities, sponsors, fans and broadcasters are ready to pay to see the stars of the past – some distant, some recent – do what they became famous for.

 

MASTERS’ PERSPECTIVES

PAUL PARKER

The former Manchester United and England player is based in Singapore and turns out for United in Masters Football Asia games in the region.

“It is fun, at least the lead-up and the follow-up are; the games can be difficult,” Parker says. “Most players push themselves a little too much and are uncomfortable afterwards. They are trying to do things that they did 20 years ago. I can’t get anywhere near. But players still have egos and the last thing you want is for someone to beat you. You want to do yourself justice and not let anyone make a fool out of you.”

All in all, Parker admits that while the money can be useful, the buzz is what attracts them.

“Of course, the players in my day did not make the money of players today, but there is more of a love of playing,” he says. “There are players who need these games to get a boost every few months and to have a reason to stay fit and get that adrenaline rush. You can also see the ones who just enjoy the camaraderie, though after a few days most are happy to get home and relax after all the drinking and late nights.”

MARK MOULAND

The 54-year-old English golfer joined the European Seniors Tour as he reached his half-century in 2011 and immediately started winning titles.

Golf is not exactly a game of pace, but power makes the difference. “The younger players hit it on average 40 yards past us,” he points out. “Some of them even manage 80 or 90. That makes it pretty much impossible to compete against them on a weekly basis.”

The standard is as good as anything you will see from the youngsters, though. “We don’t hit it as far, but the quality of shots and scores is unbelievable,” he says.

For Mouland, continuing to play seemed like the natural next step. “I wanted to carry on competing and earn money, even though, as expected, the prize money is a lot less,” he says. “We are more relaxed and have a laugh, just like it was on tour in the 80s and 90s. Today, with all the money they play for, it’s a lot more serious.”

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