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Burma Chronicles | Can Myanmar bring a new dimension to Southeast Asian sport?

  • Political and ethnic tensions remain, but economy is expanding
  • Football remains most popular sport, with golf legacy left by colonialists
  • Sports infrastructure in the country remains underdeveloped

By John Duerden

THE MYANMAR Marathon may be a dream at the moment, but the prospect of athletes running through the ancient kingdom of Bagan against a backdrop of hundreds of temples built almost a millennium ago will quicken the hearts of locals and sports marketing executives alike.

However, that is a vision of the future. The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has developed economically in recent years, although actual progress can be inconsistent. Politically, the 'Bamboo Curtain' of the Cold War has lifted, but the military still holds plenty of power.

Economically, there is steady growth of about seven per cent per year, but the country is still poor with an estimated GDP per capita of just $5,500 (€5,200) in 2015, while socially the country still suffers from serious ethnic tensions. In sport, too, there are positive signs of a market and industry emerging, but while passion and potential in this land of 63 million people are substantial, the lack of infrastructure is an obstacle.

TABLE: The Myanmar economy's key metrics (Source: CIA)
Metric: 2013 figure: 2014 figure: 2015 figure: 2015 global ranking:
GDP – real growth rate 8.4% 8.7% 7% 13
GDP – purchasing power parity $243.7bn $264.9bn $283.5bn 58
GDP – per capita $4,800 $5,200 $5,500 163
Unemployment rate N/A 5.1% 5% 51
Industrial production growth rate N/A N/A 13.7% 4

Yet the very fact that the nation – which has been ruled by a military dictatorship for much of the time since it gained independence from the UK in 1948 – is a ‘new brand’ on the global stage and in need of development does offer some opportunities.

Infrastructure

“You have to look into sports that don't require any infrastructure,” says TSE Consulting managing director Lars Haue-Pedersen, who thinks that the market in the country is more open than the politics – a fair point since even after the 2015 general election, the military still reserved 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and must approve any constitutional changes.

“A marathon is always good and in many ways the less developed the country, the more interesting it is. Cycling and swimming in open water can be great and then you combine the three into a triathlon.”

Myanmar’s hosting capabilities were tested when Nay Pyi Taw staged the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, with nearly 5,000 athletes competing across 37 sports.

PICTURE: Security at the closing ceremony of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games at Wunna Theikdi Stadium in Nay Pyi Taw

Currently, however, one sport dominates. There is a saying in the country that the three tenets of society are Buddhism, family and football – although those who witnessed the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Football Federation Suzuki Cup in Myanmar late in 2016 would attest that they may not necessarily be in that order.

Hosting the tournament, a biennial eight-team regional affair, was not a major problem as it only entailed laying out the carpet for one group of four teams with one stadium used for five of the six games.

That arena in Yangon was crammed full of passionate fans whenever the 'White Angels' played, in stark contrast to the scenes in the Philippines, the other co-host. The numbers have always been there, but for Aung Naing Soe, sports consultant and founder of Sports Myanmar Online, there was something different this time.

“Our fans have become mature, disciplined and controlled,” Naing says. “They share things on social media and this has helped make the dark days of the past a memory.”

Progress

At the end of the last decade, the Myanmar Football Federation started a youth development program. This was financed partly by development grants from Fifa, football’s global governing body, and government money.

The better players who were produced through the programme qualified for the 2015 Under-20 World Cup, sparking nationwide celebrations. The basis of that team reached the last four of the Suzuki Cup only to lose to champion Thailand. There is hope that Myanmar can qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup for what would be a first-ever appearance on the continental stage. The planned expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams is heartily supported too.

The domestic game is also growing. In 2009, a professional national league was formed. “The league has grown into a major competition thanks to investments from local businessmen,” Naing says.

These executives often have or desire close ties with the government. The highest-profile tycoon is U Tay Za, once blacklisted by the US for his close ties to the military regime and suspected arms sales. Tay Za's son is the chairman of Yangon United and his money has helped the club grow at home and start to qualify for continental competitions abroad.

“The opening up of the country was supposed to help the industry grow, but there has not been a direct effect yet due to the poor infrastructure,” Naing says. “In football, it is improving, but in other sports, it will take more time.”

Golf

The British colonialists left a passion for golf in the country and there are about 80 courses in Myanmar. Not all are easy to get to, according to Chan Han, chairman of the Professional Golfers Association of Myanmar. “Do we have the airport? Do we have the roads and do we have the hotels? We don’t really have that yet so it’s going to have to go step by step,” he says. “It needs to be a concerted effort from everybody and that’s the difficulty of it.”

However, as the country becomes wealthier, there will be more players and fans. “As the middle class grows, then more people will start to play,” says Kyi Hla Han, executive chairman of golf's Asian Tour. “There is a long history of golf in the country and there is potential for a lot of growth too.”

The Myanmar Open returned in 2016 after a hiatus of two years – a move that should boost attempts to attract golf tourists from Japan, South Korea and China, although Myanmar faces stiff competition from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Although just 750,000 tourists visited the country in 2010, the figure ballooned to 4.68 million five years later.

“Myanmar can use sporting events to drive tourism and then use some of that revenue to build infrastructure, which facilitates more tourism,” Haue-Pedersen says.

There are other challenges when it comes to attempting to grow an embryonic sports industry in the country. “Even if we hold events, finding sponsorship is not easy,” Naing says.

However, such matters are improving. Qatari telecommunications network Ooredoo has sponsored the country’s football league since 2013 for a fee of about $2m per year, and Dutch brewer Heineken is also reportedly looking to get involved in a country full of young people who like to head out at weekends and are keen to engage with international brands. But they will have to wait a little longer, according to Haue-Pedersen.

Return on investment

“There are not many international companies that will be confident of a return if they invest in Myanmar at the moment, given the low purchasing power,” he says. Such businesses may be encouraged to hear Naing’s assertion though that about 25 per cent of people aged 18 to 30 have enough disposable income to gamble online – even though it is illegal to do so in the country.

“There are opportunities for more strategic political sponsorships for companies that want to build ties with the government,” Haue-Pedersen adds. “They can invest in a kind of political CSR way that would enable them to get in the market first.”

Such an approach could be key, but although Myanmar has many of the ingredients to provide an exciting future for investors in sport, it will be a marathon rather than a sprint.

EXTRA: A Burmese businessman

U Tay Za may have been labelled “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma's repressive junta” by the US Treasury in 2007 and only taken off the country’s sanctions list in 2016, but one of Myanmar's richest men has done his bit for the development of the local football scene. His son is the chairman of Myanmar National League powerhouse Yangon United and his money, vision and patience have helped to transform the club into a powerhouse with four titles in the past six seasons.

“People always ask me about Tay Za, but he was great to me,” says Peter Butler, a former midfielder at English football club West Ham United who was Yangon's head coach from 2009 to 2010. “The facilities were great and he left the staff to do their jobs.”

Having had a close association with the military government for several years, Tay Za – who owns aviation company Air Bagan, as well as hotels, mining and construction companies, and a bank – hit the headlines in 2011 when his helicopter crashed in the mountainous north of Myanmar. He and five staff survived in the snow at 15,000 feet for four days.

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