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Thai FA president has arresting ambition for SEA leadership

Football Association of Thailand president, Police General (Rtd.) Somyot Poonpanmoung at the workshop in Bangkok on October 8, 2019. (Football Association of Thailand)

  • Thai FA president Somyot Poompanmoung is striving to make Thailand the leading football nation in Southeast Asia
  • Former police chief is pushing the organisation toward greater commercial sophistication
  • An upcoming domestic media-rights tender is his current focus; after that, it’s re-election

Nearing the end of a first four-year term as president of the Football Association of Thailand, Somyot Poompanmoung has clearly fully transitioned from his former life as a policeman.

During a workshop for Thai clubs in Bangkok two weeks ago, he talked of branding, building commercial value, employing internationally-recognised marketing agencies and practices – the language of an ambitious, modern sports organisation, far removed from the police force.

Poompanmoung, who was formerly the commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, has some impressive accomplishments under his belt at the FAT, and is keen for more. A second term in office is in his sights, with elections due in early 2020. It would be his second and last term because he introduced a two-term limit to the role, among other moves to modernise the organisation.

His chief project at the moment is securing a new media-rights agreement for Thai club and national team football. He is looking for a landmark eight-year deal that would secure revenues for the foreseeable future and strengthen his arm in the presidential election.

As befitting someone who is reported to have ambitions for higher political office once he leaves football, Poompanmoung’s aims for Thai football go beyond financial stability. He wants to build on the league’s current position as one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, to make it the undisputed leader and the destination for the best players in the region.

Thai football hub

“It’s very important to establish Thailand as the hub for football in this region – Asean, which has a potential market of 600 million,” Poompanmoung told SportBusiness at last week’s workshop. “We strongly believe that the legacy we have built and our plans for the future will lead us to that position – to be able to confidently say that we are the centre of football in southeast Asia.”

In 2018, the FAT began allowing clubs to hire more players from the Asean region – encompassing Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The previous foreign player quota was referred to as “3+1+1”, and allowed clubs three foreign players from any country, plus a fourth from any AFC country, plus a fifth from any Asean country. They are now allowed two further Asean players in a quota referred to as “3+1+3”.

Poompanmoung says: “The Thai league is the strongest and most professional league in the Southeast region. To open up Thailand as the hub for Asean players, that’s why we implemented the Asean player quota…So that, when you think about playing abroad, if you are a player in Asean, you should think about Thailand as the destination. This should create interest, not only for fans, but for businesses to support [Thai football] and in turn provide benefits for clubs and players.”

Thailand is the highest-ranked Southeast Asian nation in the Asian Football Confederation’s club competitions ranking, based on performances in continental competitions. Thailand is eighth, followed by the Philippines in 13th, Malaysia in 16th, and Singapore in 17th.

In terms of attendances, Thailand’s top league, League 1, has a fairly low average by the standards of major football nations at around 5,500 in the 2019 season. The Indonesian league, the region’s best-attended, had an average of around 10,000 in 2019. In both cases, the top teams can attract much higher attendances. The Thai league peaked this season at 27,000 for the game between Buriram United and Muangthong United in May, and the Indonesian league hit 70,000 for Persija v Persib in July.

When it comes to revenue, the Thai league’s current media rights deal, with pay-television broadcaster TrueVisions, generates about $35m per year. This deal covers rights to games from the first and second divisions, and two cup competitions. To provide one regional comparison, the Malaysian league was generating about $14.5m per year in its most recent deal, with telco Telekom Malaysia, that included rights to all matches from the first and second divisions, the Malaysia FA Cup, and title sponsorship of league and cup competitions. The Malaysian deal, however, collapsed earlier this year.

The FAT president doesn’t expect Southeast Asia’s other football federations and leagues to resist Thailand’s ambitions for regional dominance, because it is broadly accepted that his league already has the lead. And Thailand wants to play a leadership role in improving the level of football throughout the region through training initiatives.

“We believe that the other countries should be supportive of [our] vision,” he says. “The Thai league is well structured, and the standard is higher than the other countries. This provides opportunities for players in other nations to improve themselves, and maybe to use Thailand as a bridge to play in other countries such as Japan, Korea, and even Europe.

“The FA’s vision is to be one the to act first. You have to act fast on whatever opportunities are available to you. Take the example of the use of VAR technology – Thailand is the first Asean country to invest and attempt to implement the usage of VAR. During that process, we have seen the opportunity for other countries to come and learn from Thailand how to implement the VAR system, and for training referees…

“This is part of the main goal – to create Thailand as a hub not only football-wise but as an educational hub.”

Poompanmoung and the FAT are also working with other Asean federations on an even bigger, long-term ambition, to host the Fifa World Cup in the region in 2034.

Commercial nous

The president is encouraging the league and clubs to improve their commercial expertise, with a view to building up their commercial value in the coming years. At this month’s workshop, experts from Uefa and Fifa gave a series of presentations to a youthful and impressively gender-balanced group of club officials. Topics included social media strategy, decision-making, competition format amendment, and crisis communications. The presenters included Shaun Harvey, the former chief executive of the English Football League; Joost de Wit, the former managing director of Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem; and Kenny McLeod, former commercial manager at Celtic Football Club, the Scottish Football Association and the International Tennis Federation.

Poompanmoung is hoping to significantly increase revenues in the next media-rights cycle and in other future commercial partnerships. To achieve this, the clubs must up their game in terms of commercial nous and capabilities.

“The first step that we took today is to explain and provide ideas to the clubs for what will happen in future,” he says. “We invited guests from Uefa, the Dutch league, the EFL… these experts have been through similar processes that the FAT is going through. They will help the clubs to understand what the next procedures should be, whether that is establishing a working group or another process to move things forward…

“There is an expectation from the FA: we would like to build the brand value and make the Thai league brand stronger…When we build a bigger and better brand, this will result in greater value in terms of broadcasting rights and commercial value for the league and Thai football.”

In another indication of the FA’s drive for commercial sophistication, it is for the first time working with a major sports marketing agency to sell its domestic media rights. The tender, which is to launch this month and be concluded by December, is being run by the Octagon agency, which is in turn working with experienced local media-rights salesmen Iqbal Maricar and Nick Wilkinson.

“FA Thailand was lacking expertise in this kind of area,” Poompanmoung says. “We didn’t want to initiate the process without a proper consultation with an internationally-accepted, well-known agency. We have engaged Octagon to advise us how the tender process should be run and what would achieve the best results for the clubs and the FA.

“We want to make sure that we have an internationally-accepted standard for the bidding process, that is credible and transparent.”

A positive outcome to the tender in December would of course be fine timing for the president, with the FA presidential elections coming shortly afterwards.

First-term achievements

A successful media-rights auction would cap a list of first-term achievements for the president that includes overseeing: the clearing of a $5m debt, the building of a new FA headquarters, a significant increase in the number of licensed coaches and match officials in Thailand, the opening of a new national training centre for young players.

In the next few months it will be seen whether the Thai media-rights market delivers Poompanmoung a strong deal, and whether the FAT voters will deliver him a second term in office. For now, Thai football has a leader that is on the front foot in terms of projecting his vision for a more influential, commercially successful future. As he tells SportBusiness, his “ultimate goal is to uplift the level of Thai football to be able to compare with developed countries in Asia and around the world”.

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