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LaLiga and Bundesliga aim to make inroads on Premier League’s Asian dominance

Former Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn at a charity fund raiser in Tokyo last December (Atsushi Tomura/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images)

  • LaLiga and the Bundesliga have been active in Asia in terms of “putting boots on the ground”
  • Asian stars have always turbo-charged league and club marketing efforts in Asian markets, but Asian players good enough to compete at the top level in Europe remain rare
  • Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 currently sit far behind the other three big European leagues in terms of interest and value in Asia

LaLiga and the Bundesliga have been the most active European football leagues in Asia in recent years in terms of “putting boots on the ground” and ramping up activity from regional offices. Their work is a valuable blueprint for international rights-holders with ambitions on the continent.

The Bundesliga was the first European football league to establish an office in Asia as it opened its doors in Singapore in 2012. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Schalke 04, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt have also opened Asian offices of their own. The Singapore office and Bundesliga clubs organised over 300 marketing activities in Asia during the 2018-19 season.

LaLiga opened its first Asian office in Singapore in 2017 and has since moved into China, Japan and India.

The two leagues are focusing on similar, familiar, but effective areas, including: building their brands on social media with bespoke content; leveraging Asian stars; and building up the profiles of their smaller teams alongside their existing mega-brands of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Localised approach

Not falling into the trap of treating Asia as one big country is the first lesson brands looking to break into the continent learn. Even within East Asia, the social media landscapes of China, South Korea and Japan are very different, and any ambitious rights-holder must plan accordingly. A misstep can be costly.

Russell Tan, LaLiga’s head of marketing in Asia, calls his league’s approach ‘Glocalism’ – it involves bringing fans into the league’s orbit, but doing so by starting different conversations in different countries.

“Everything we produce [on social media] is based on local market preferences and there is no copy and pasting of content from one country or platform to another,” Tan tells SportBusiness. “Our social media content is made available in Chinese, Thai, Bahasa [Indonesian], and Japanese to make this connection more seamless. All of this has helped us to secure more than 40 million social media followers across the region and to generate high levels of engagement.”

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They doubled down efforts on this strategy in July with the addition of former Barcelona star player Andres Iniesta to the ranks of their LaLiga Icons, which is a global marketing initiative fronted by ex-LaLiga stars with strong online followings.

Iniesta, who is currently playing for J-League side Vissel Kobe, has a strong following in Japan. Masayuki Morii, Vissel Kobe’s business manager, said to the Guardian after Iniesta’s arrival: “In a normal year we sell 150,000 merchandise items, but in the two weeks after Iniesta arrived we sold 50,000.”

LaLiga tells SportBusiness Asia senior editor Kelvin Tan: “One of the key ways that we work with Ambassadors/Icons is to produce entertaining content for fans that helps spread visibility for LaLiga. It could be a message for a national holiday, an event, a football skills challenge, etc. We use this in a variety of ways but most of the content works well for social media, so we focus our efforts there.”

The Bundesliga says it focuses on developing an emotional connection with fans in Asia. “We have a closer affinity to Asia than anyone else and we can engage our fans with content, especially video,” says Kevin Sim, the league’s head of Asia-Pacific.

“From our market research, it is estimated there are nearly a billion football fans in just eight countries in Asia alone – China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea – and almost half (43 per cent) of those are Bundesliga fans (407 million).

“It represents a huge market opportunity. And it’s much easier to reach this vast audience regularly and directly through digital channels.

“In China fans are passionate about clubs. However, there is also a growing loyalty towards stars, and we need to use players as ambassadors as well as the usual local campaigns. A visit by former German international Oliver Khan to Thailand had a reach of 13 million.

“In addition, we’ve found that in places like Japan, China and Korea, our club mascots are also big attractions. You just have to look at Facebook as an example, where Bayern’s mascot Bernie has nearly half a million followers, while Dortmund’s mascot, Emma, has over a quarter million.”

The league got extraordinary traction in China with its hashtag #footballasitsmeanttobe, which has been shared 480 million times, more than any of the other European leagues’ campaigns. The localised hashtag was used in all posts across Bundesliga’s social and digital platforms in China.

Local heroes

Asian stars have always turbo-charged league and club marketing efforts in Asian markets. But Asian players good enough to compete at the top level in Europe remain rare.

“Signing players makes a huge difference but clubs need to sign a Chinese player who is capable of playing consistently and shining in the league,” says Bi Yuan, a Beijing-based sports consultant who formerly worked for Titan Sports newspaper. Referring to two recent Chinese imports to LaLiga, he says: “Zhang Chengdong did not bring any change to Rayo Vallecano…the problem is that China has few players of Wu Lei’s calibre.”

Wu Lei has been a surprise sensation in Spain this year. While not a world-class player, the 2018 Chinese Super League top scorer has nevertheless begun to establish himself at LaLiga club Espanyol, and appeared in all but one of the 17 remaining league games after his February 3 debut.

After his first start on February 17, Espanyol claimed that 40 million fans in China watched his debut online. While some in China doubt the accuracy of such numbers, there is no doubt that the ‘Wu Lei effect’ is real, and more fans watch Espanyol games in China than they do in Spain. The video of his transfer announcement was seen 1.8 million times on Weibo, the Chinese social media site that is similar to Twitter. And 2.5 million watched the live stream of his first press conference, despite being close to the midnight hour. Wu’s presence has given LaLiga’s broadcaster in China, PPTV , a huge marketing boost ahead of the new season.

“Espanyol is the third-most popular team in China now,” says Bi. “Most of their players might have been unknown for Chinese fans but they start to be discussed among fans after the Chinese star joins the team.” When Chinese basketball star Yao Ming played for the NBA’s Houston Rockets in the 2000s, the spillover effect of his fame was so strong that some of his team-mates got sponsorship deals with Chinese sportswear brands.

LaLiga’s Tan says: “It is always important for LaLiga to have top quality players from any given market to play in our league. In the end we cater our product to a global audience, and this helps us increase our clubs’ and LaLiga’s popularity worldwide. In the case of Wu Lei, of course the impact is even bigger than usual. Since the player joined Espanyol, LaLiga’s following on Sina Weibo has increased by over 500,000. Wu Lei’s club has also increased its popularity exponentially – we now see that Wu Lei’s goals are watched ten times more than Leo Messi’s on social channels. TV audiences for matches where he is involved are among the highest we have seen for LaLiga games in China.

“It is also important to see that Wu Lei has been able to show his value on the pitch as this leaves the door open for not only fellow Chinese but also other Asian talent to make the move to Spanish football.” And that seems to be happening, with Real Madrid and Barcelona moving quickly in the summer to sign young Japanese hotshots Takefusa Kubo and Hiroki Abe.

But it is the Bundesliga that has been Europe’s most successful league in terms of signing Asian players. It has had Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Iranian, Japanese, North and South Korean and Thai players, plus many more stars from the continent since the 1970s and is still the gateway for most Asian players that are good enough to play at the top level. South Korea’s Son Heung-min and Japan’s Shinji Kagawa are just two of the stars who made their names in Germany in the last 10 years.

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Sim says: “We just did some research which consolidated all the data from Opta and in-house and found that, over two decades, we had more appearances and goals from Asian players than all the other four leagues combined.” From July 1998, 64 Asians have played 3,926 games and scored 426 goals. “The next step is: How do you build the relationship once you have interest and visibility? We can use the players as an introduction to the Bundesliga and hopefully build a deeper allegiance to those clubs.”

In early July at the ISPO Shanghai, the Bundesliga and its clubs Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Borussia Monchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen sent high-level representatives.

Patrick Stueber, the head of Bundesliga China, said at the Chinese sports trade event: “In China, our main goal is to bring Chinese fans closer to the Bundesliga, and give fans the opportunity to get in touch with the clubs directly.”

Martin Thiess, the general manager for Borussia Monchengladbach in China, said after his club had just completed their first China tour with a friendly against Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F: “It’s not just about a friendly match. What’s very special about this trip is that we have held public football events in the two cities we visited, Guangzhou and Shanghai, because we want to contribute to the development of Chinese football.”

Beyond Bayern and Barça

One of the big challenges for both LaLiga and the Bundesliga is to expand Asian interest outside of their dominant teams. Both leagues aim to use the giants as bait to hook fans for smaller teams.

“Every league has certain teams that are more popular, but we see it as a strength as we can use that popularity to introduce the Bundesliga and our brand to new fans,” says Sim. “If you watch a Bayern-Dortmund game then you see it is exciting and that gets fans thinking about other teams.”

Spain’s El Clasico game presents similar opportunities, Tan says: “FC Barcelona and Real Madrid…are a wonderful spearhead for us to talk about the other clubs and league as a whole. We are committed to telling stories of our less recognised clubs and use key moments such as Spanish derby matches as a means of educating our fans about the depth and importance of the games. Little by little, we are helping Spanish teams become better recognised globally and in the region.”

Club Activity

League activity to market European football in Asia has in recent years been augmented by increasing club activity. European clubs have opened academies to train young players across the region. Regional sponsorship deals have created new opportunities to engage local fans, as well as directly generating revenue.

Clubs and their sponsors have opened stores, fan experience parks, and themed restaurants and bars. In July, Tottenham Hotspur became the sixth European football club to open a dedicated e-commerce platform, the club’s first, to sell merchandise directly to Chinese fans on TMall, the Alibaba-owned online store.

Borussia Dortmund chief executive officer Hans-Joachim Watzke has said that the German Bundesliga club will be increasing efforts in reaching out to the Chinese and Asian markets over the next few years. Speaking to Xinhua, he said: “We are determined to concentrate even more on the Asian markets than we did in the past.”

Watzke spoke about the popularity of several Borussia Dortmund players in Asia such as Marco Reus, Mats Hummels, and new signing Julian Brandt, who is the fourth most popular Bundesliga player in China, according to market surveys.

“We still remember our last trip (to China) and the enthusiasm sparked by our legends team last year,” Watzke said.

Catch the Leader

It’s notable that LaLiga and the Bundesliga have been more proactive in their Asian marketing initiatives than the undisputed market leader, the Premier League. So great is the English league’s leading position in terms of recognition and popularity among Asian fans that it hasn’t needed to focus as heavily on on-the-ground activity to generate interest. The league’s first Asian office opened in Singapore in January and is currently focused on tackling the broadcast piracy problem in the region.

The Premier League has capitalised on a range of advantages to attain the top position. One which has perhaps been under-appreciated is the English language. “Many Korean, Japanese and Chinese journalists can speak English, and, I would say, all can read it, so can follow all the news from the UK,” says Kim Hyun-ki, an independent Seoul-based sports marketing consultant. “That is not the case for other European languages…It helps the media feel closer to the Premier League.”

The Premier League’s dominance pays off in hard cash. The Premier League will earn $233m per season from its media-rights deal with PPTV in China in the 2019-20 to 2021-22 cycle.

But the Premier League will know that it cannot rely forever on its historic headstart over its rivals. Pressure is growing from more than one angle, including the increased activity of the likes of LaLiga and the Bundesliga. Perhaps more significantly, outside of China and Indonesia the Premier League’s most recent media-rights sales cycle in Asia was a tough one, with significant falls in revenue in several markets. It will be wary of the fall from grace that Italy’s Serie A has suffered since the 1990s, when it was the most popular football league in many Asian markets.

Ground to make up

Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 currently sit far behind the other three big European leagues in terms of interest and value in Asia. Ligue 1 is particularly far behind.

“In China, we don’t talk of the Big Five leagues but the big four or maybe the big four plus one,” says Bi.

“It will help if [Paris St. Germain] win the Champions League,” says Kim. “At the moment, it would be better for Ligue 1 if they tried to be a little different rather than trying the same as the bigger leagues. Becoming a gateway for Asian talent would be a possible strategy.”

Italy has advantages with its historic popularity and the stature of the Milan clubs and Juventus, but still lags the English, Spanish and German leagues. “Older fans still have affection for Italian clubs, but they are not as strong anymore and the viewing experience is worse than the big three leagues. The games themselves are not so exciting,” says Kim.

Opportunity awaits

In April, thousands of fans packed out shopping malls, game viewings and coaching clinics hosted by three former Liverpool players Jason McAteer, Steve McManaman and Sami Hyypiä in Kuala Lumpur. Although the club enjoyed great success on the pitch this season, winning the Uefa Champions League, it has generally lagged behind the league’s top teams for almost three decades. And yet still the fans came in great numbers.

European football remains a massively valuable product in Asia, even amid rapidly changing media consumption habits and business models, and the rise of competing entertainments, such as esports. With clever strategy and execution, rights-holders like LaLiga and the Bundesliga will continue to increase fanbases and reap benefits in the years to come.

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