When a leading sports team signs a foreign player, it does so because of their athletic ability. But sometimes that player can also usher in an opportunity to build a sizeable fan base in their home country.
The most celebrated example of this was Chinese basketball player Yao Ming’s decade-long stay with NBA team the Houston Rockets (2002-2011), which boosted the profile of both the NBA and the Rockets among Chinese fans. But there are other similar scenarios.
Still with the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo (aka the ‘Greek Freak’) has transformed the appeal of Milwaukee Bucks among Greek fans, and has even been used as a cultural ambassador by Greece to drive inbound tourism. In Major League Baseball, Shohei Ohtani has created a frenzy of Japanese fandom for the LA Angels. In Europe, Mo Salah’s arrival at English Premier League club Liverpool has boosted the club’s profile in Egypt while Son Heung-Min has done the same for Tottenham Hotspur in South Korea. For Bundesliga’s Bayern Munich, Colombia is trending thanks to James Rodríguez, while Borussia Dortmund’s partnership with Shinji Kagawa has raised the club’s profile in Japan.
The obvious question is whether this elevated interest among fans can be translated into new revenues. And the answer, says Adam Grossman, chief executive of Block 6 Analytics, is a qualified yes. “The lesson from Yao Ming’s career is that clubs can generate revenues. The Rockets sold a lot of jerseys in China and secured a sponsorship with ZTE.”
What’s more, says Grossman, this positive impact can extend beyond the player’s career. “The Rockets are still one of the most popular international teams in China because they built on the foundation provided by Yao Ming. They’ve played several games in China, run community events there and also celebrate Chinese New Year. They were also shrewd to develop other ambassadors alongside Yao Ming. Tracy McGrady, for example, sold as many shirts as Yao Ming in China and continues to be popular over there despite having retired.”
Indeed, such is the Yao Ming legacy that it even influences the present-day valuation of the Rockets. Last year, when owner Leslie Alexander said he was considering selling the franchise, US analysts valued it at a remarkable $2bn (€1.8bn), in part because of those China links.
The closest current day comparison to Yao Ming, says Grossman, is Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani, who joined the Los Angeles Angels at the end of 2017, having already earned himself the nickname the ‘Japanese Babe Ruth’ thanks to his exploits in Japan. It’s too early to know how Ohtani will fare in MLB, but already the Angels have secured a sponsorship deal with Funai Electric Company on the back of Ohtani’s arrival. The Osaka-based consumer electronics firm will be the exclusive advertiser on the Angels’ interview backdrops during the 2018 season and will also appear on the home plate rotational sign inside Angel Stadium and at the training ground.
Of course, not just any foreign player can have this impact. Self-evidently, says Grossman, they need to perform well on the field/court of play “though this isn’t really enough on its own. Fans also need to find them engaging and authentic off the field/court”.
He cites the intriguing example of Kyrie Irving, of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. “He’s incredibly popular on social media and has created a huge fanbase off the back of Uncle Buck, a web series funded by Pepsi that has since been turned into a movie.” The relevance of Irving to this discussion, says Grossman, is “that he was born in Australia and has a loyal fanbase there”. With another bona fide Aussie on the Celtics roster, Aron Baynes, the team has deepened its ties with the market. There is an online store that sells Celtics merchandise into Australia and ongoing appeals to Aussie fans via social media.
Home and away
While trying to tap into players’ home markets seems like a no-brainer, sports sales agent at Creative Artists Agency Matthew O’Donohoe says there are some limitations to what can be achieved. “A tour to the country might seem like a good idea, but that takes a long time to set up. And it also has to be balanced against the commercial potential of touring other locations. Likewise, it might be appealing to send the player there, but these guys rarely get the time to do that because of their schedule.”
It’s for this reason that on the ground activities tend to revolve around community or academy programmes, maybe involving former club stars, says O’Donohoe. “Having said that, it’s important for clubs to be ready to act if an opportunity arises. For example, the player may be injured or may have to return home for national team duties.”
If it is possible to get the player back home then the benefits are apparent, adds O’Donohoe. In May 2017, Son Heung-Min visited South Korea alongside a small cohort of other Tottenham players. The trip was organised by Tottenham sponsor AIA and generated huge media and fan attention. “Son Heung-Min is like a rock star in Korea and Tottenham’s profile is in the country is certainly benefiting.”
That claim is backed up by the club itself, which says it achieved a 30-per-cent increase in South Korean fans in the first year after Son Heung-Min arrived. On the back of that, Gary Jacobson, brand licensing manager, Tottenham Hotspur, appointed Seoul-based licensing agent Infiniss “as we strive to cater for the growing demand for club product”.
Another factor clubs need to keep in mind, says O’Donohoe, is the potential for clashes between any new localised activity and pre-existing commercial commitments involving the club and player. In the US, some analysts forecast that Ohtani could become the first $10m MLB player in terms of endorsements, mainly with Japanese companies. But if that happens it will limit how much he can work with club sponsors. “It’s a consideration, though not insurmountable,” says O’Donohoe. “It’s really just a matter of communication, and the two sides respecting each other’s ambitions within the local market.”
That said, the situation can sometimes be complicated by the activities of other stakeholders. Before the 2018 Fifa World Cup, there was a spat between Mo Salah and the Egyptian Football Association over the use of Salah’s image rights on the national team’s official plane. The problem lay in the fact that the plane was provided by local telecom provider WE, while Salah has his own endorsement programme with Vodafone. The situation was resolved but reflects possible tensions.
This isn’t to suggest that Liverpool itself can’t cash in on Salah’s popularity in this market of 100 million people. With Salah permanently on the front page of Egyptian newspapers, it was no real surprise when the club signed up Egypt-based bank AlexBank as a regional sponsor in October 2017. This deal came about despite having a much broader relationship with multi-national banking and financial services company Standard Chartered, the club’s current front of shirt sponsor.
Bayern’s Latin American appeal
O’Donohoe also stresses that the activity undertaken by teams will depend on the potential rewards from the market in question. “We represent James Rodríguez, for example, who is hugely popular in Colombia, which is one of LatAm’s major economies. So that’s an opportunity for Bayern Munich that is worth exploring.”
When James moved to Bayern from Real Madrid, the club experienced a huge increase in Colombian social media followers – and the player has gone on to sell the most shirts for the club. While Bayern hasn’t opened an office in Colombia, its US office is making tactical investments aimed at deepening the club’s bond with the country. It has, for example, hired a New York-based Spanish-language content producer to connect with the Spanish-speaking community both in the US and Latin America. It is also exploring ways it can work more closely with broadcast partners like Univision, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes.
The club’s board member for internationalisation and strategy Jörg Wacker also explained on the club’s website that the decision to play a pre-season game in Miami this year was partly about Latin America: “Miami is the gateway to Central and South America. This is interesting for us because we have been focusing on Latin America intensely.” After the US tour, there were further reports that Bayern may sanction a summer tour of Latin America in 2019. Wacker told German newspaper AZ: “We are playing with the idea that we go to one market two years in a row (the Americas) and the other two years in a row (Asia). It’s easy to see that South America can be a destination when you have a star like James.”
Octagon chief strategy officer Simon Wardle agrees that it might be hard to organise a tour at the drop of a hat, but he says “the inevitable rise in local media coverage provides a platform for clubs to maximise their commercial opportunity. They need to be looking at licensing, talking to sponsors (either regional or the local divisions of global companies) and developing their own digital media strategy – making content in the local-language and featuring the player in question”.
The best results come from players who are loyal to one team, he says, like Yao Ming. One footballing comparison is Park Ji-Sung, who joined Manchester United in 2005 and is still a club ambassador. By 2010, at the height of his popularity, the club were reporting that sales of United merchandise in Korea was a ‘multi-million pound’ annual business. Aside from shirts, one million Koreans had a Manchester United-branded credit or debit card and revenues were pouring in from tour matches.
By contrast, how would Arsenal have felt if they had invested in Chile on the back of Alexis Sánchez’s brief time at the team – only to see him head to Manchester United? “It’s possible that we are not looking at a cradle-to-grave opportunity,” says Wardle, “but if clubs engage well with fans their relationship might survive a player moving on”.
A difference of one
Wardle also believes clubs with less of an international profile can take advantage and points to English football club Bolton Wanderers’ spike in popularity in Japan when Hidetoshi Nakata left Serie A to play for them.
A more current example is Cenk Tosun’s arrival at EPL club Everton from Turkish club Beşiktaş. Such was the interest from Tosun’s home market that the club organised a special media day at the club’s Finch Farm training ground. That has paid off with a 25-per-cent boost in the club’s Turkish Facebook fanbase and increased merchandise sales. The club’s retail partner Fanatics undertook a series of digital marketing campaigns in Turkey after Tosun’s arrival and has been rewarded with a 2600-per-cent year-on-year lift in sales. There are also reports that the club is in talks with Turkish companies about potential sponsorship deals.
Scott O’Neil, chief executive of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, oversees two leading franchises, NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and NHL’s New Jersey Devils. With talent from an array of countries including Australia, Croatia, Cameroon and Switzerland, he agrees that “the world is getting smaller and the opportunities greater. The fact that the Devils first draft pick in the 2017-18 draft was Switzerland’s Nico Hischier shows we are dialed in to the international appeal of our sports”.
However, he also stresses that “the leagues (the NBA and the NHL) have full control of the international business and marketing”. In other words, HBSE’s international strategy is shaped by priorities that go beyond playing personnel. At the time of writing, for example, O’Neil was in Shanghai as the 76ers prepared to square off against the Dallas Mavericks. Similarly, the decision to send the Devils to Sweden for an NHL season opener against the Edmonton Oilers was more about the importance of the Nordic region than the origins of a particular player.
“We rank and prioritise markets based on fans, organic opportunities to grow the game, and commercial viability,” he says, “and China is the biggest opportunity. That said, the Devils have played pre-season games against SC Bern in Switzerland while the 76ers have played regular season games in London and a pre-season game against Melbourne [United in] Australia. We certainly hope to play a game in Africa”.
O’Neil agrees that – holidays aside – there are not many opportunities for players from small-to-medium-sized markets to personally spearhead a tailored commercial strategy: “But providing content in a country’s native language will become a competitive advantage over time. If we take the 76ers’ Dario Šarić [from Croatia] and produce content in his native tongue, we have a good opportunity to drive more 76ers fans in that country. Joel Embiid from Cameroon speaks French, which means content can be played in France, Québec, etc.”
In terms of generating ROI on this tailored production investment, digital retail channels mean it is possible to drive merchandise sales, says O’Neil. He also identifies a potential impact on the sale of league-level digital products. “To the extent we can drive NBA League Pass subscriptions or Center Ice Subscriptions in hockey, if our global presence encourages people to connect with the game on an ongoing, membership-based level, that’s a wonderful outcome.”
O’Neil also makes a broader point about the value of foreign playing staff: “The players from outside the US are incredible global ambassadors. They are well travelled and comfortable in different cultures. The likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons really appreciate the opportunity that some of the international markets present.”
Grossman makes a similar point with regard to Milwaukee Bucks’ Antetokounmpo: “The Bucks have been looking for a shirt sponsor, and there’s no question his appeal outside the US is being leveraged as evidence that the Bucks can appeal to the international market.”
Scope of appeal
Extending O’Donohoe’s point about market size, Wardle notes that some players generate support pan-regionally. While there is historic antagonism between Japan, China and Korea that can limit player appeal between those markets, the German Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund have leveraged Shinji Kagawa’s appeal in Southeast Asia, holding him up as an example of an Asian player operating at an elite level. “Likewise, Mo Salah potentially has pan-regional appeal in the Middle East,” says Wardle.
English Premier League side Chelsea has benefited from a regional halo effect, with the likes of Didier Drogba (from the Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (from Ghana), Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel (both from Nigeria) contributing to the club’s appeal across West Africa. Of these, Nigeria’s 186 million population is the major prize, and it was salutary to note that the country’s capital Lagos came out second to London as the city which sold most Chelsea shirts anywhere in the world, in a poll conducted by retailer Sports Direct.
Chelsea commercial director Chris Townsend recently announced plans to increase the number of club sponsors from 12 to around 30-35 as part of its effort to double revenues to more than £650m, and it seems logical that markets like Nigeria (where Chelsea has more than two million Facebook followers) should play into that strategy. In late 2017, for example, Townsend unveiled a partnership with Star Beer, which became the club’s Official Nigerian Beer Partner. Aside from any direct revenue the deal brings in, he takes the view that “this alliance will further help us grow our fanbase throughout Nigeria”.
While acknowledging the uplift in interest that comes with local player popularity, Simon Chadwick, professor of sport enterprise at Salford Business School, is not convinced “big clubs have a sustainable strategy in this area. I’m sure Juventus would love to sign a great Chinese player but there is always the issue of quality control. It’s less of a risk to sign Cristiano Ronaldo then take him to China on a tour”.
Chadwick makes a valid point. Paris Saint-Germain, for example, has four Brazilian players on its books, including global star Neymar. But rather than target football-mad Brazil, it puts its energy into cracking China. In recent months, the team has been on tour to China (with Neymar), invested in Chinese eSports and signed up agency Desports to manage its marketing activities within the country. Earlier this year, the club also transcribed the names of its players into Chinese on their jerseys.
Chadwick says the big clubs “can’t be everywhere so they focus on a few strategic priorities, regardless of whether they have playing staff from there”. His point is borne out by the fact that Europe’s leading clubs headed to the US for a pre-season tour after the World Cup.
For those football clubs that do pursue a player-led strategy, he says there is a risk it will fall foul of a lack of bilateralism. “A lot of clubs fall down because they are perceived as all take and no give – that’s certainly a message we hear coming out of East Asia. If they are going to make advances in markets there has to be some substance.”
It is worth noting that sponsors, managers and owners can also influence a club’s appeal. Chelsea never got much traction in Japan as long as it had Korean brand Samsung on its shirts. When it switched to Japanese brand Yokohama Rubber, its popularity grew in that country. On the ownership front, Wolverhampton Wanderers is making waves in China now it belongs to Chinese international conglomerate Fosun, while Leicester City’s status in Thailand grew exponentially after the late Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought the club. Aside from the naming rights deal Srivaddhanaprabha’s company (King Power) has with the club, the Thai connection swung a three-year pouring rights deal with ThaiBev beer brand Chang.
Of course, one reason European soccer clubs haven’t had a Yao Ming-style commercial uplift is that there hasn’t been a genuine example of a superstar who hails from either of the two most important emerging football markets – China and the US. With this in mind, Wardle and O’Donohoe are monitoring the progress of Christian Pulisic, a 19-year-old US player who plies his trade at Borussia Dortmund but is on the radar at top EPL clubs. Dubbed “the American Messi”, O’Donohoe says “if Pulisic goes to a leading European club and performs well, it could be massive in terms of their US prospects. That’s a scenario where one player could genuinely have an impact on club revenues”.