South Korean football superstar Son Heung Min capped off 2020 by taking home the Fifa Puskas award for his stunning goal against Burnley in the Premier League in December the previous year. He has continued to wow fans and add to his trophy cabinet in 2021, netting his 100th goal for Spurs in January and achieving the South Korean Men’s Footballer of the Year award and Best Footballer in Asia for 2020.
Son’s success has underlined the great value that Asian players can bring to European football clubs, both on and off the pitch. The marketability of Asian players is well understood but must be matched by on-pitch performances if they are to be a sustainable feature in European football. I expect we will see a growing list of players from the region joining the Premier League and other top leagues in years to come.
One of the early events that made the Premier League sit up and take note of the pulling power of Asian players was the reported 360 million-strong audience in China in 2003 for a mid-table clash between Everton and Manchester City. The reason for the massive audience was the presence of Chinese players on the opposing sides, with Sun Ji Hai playing for City and Li Tie for Everton.
The most prominent Asian player in the Premier League before Son was Manchester United’s South Korean Park Ji-Sung. His acquisition in July 2005 was seen as a strategic move to build the club’s profile in Asia. Park turned out to be a huge success on the pitch, winning four Premier League titles, the Champions League, and the Fifa Club World Cup with United.
While Park was playing, the club’s matches attracted big audiences in South Korea and its Korean website drew more than four million users annually. Brands like Nike were swift to capitalise on the traffic to drive sales and deliver locally-relevant campaigns in Korea. Shinhan Bank forged a partnership resulting in more than one million Koreans sporting a United-branded credit or debit card, many showing Park’s face. Following Park’s visit to Seoul in 2006, Korean tyre maker Kumho signed a four-year sponsorship deal with United. Kumho continues to invest in football to this day and we should not underestimate the role that Park played in drawing it into sport.
In 2015, Tottenham Hotspur spent £22m (€26m/$30m) on Son Heung-Min, making him the most expensive Asian player in football history. His success on the pitch is driving huge commercial value, along many avenues.
Seeing Son play at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium is a bucket list experience for Koreans visiting London. In his home country, he has secured a range of endorsements with brands including Gillette and Adidas. Few Korean television advertising breaks go by without an appearance by the player representing a brand.
Spurs now have an estimated 195.4 million followers now in the Apac region, making the club an attractive platform. Brands can tap into large, existing football fan bases, and also engage new audiences via the strength of national pride and relatability.
Building upon their Korean connection, Spurs recently signed South Korean women’s national team captain Cho So-hyun for their ladies team on a loan deal.
Hong Kong-based life insurance company AIA has been Spurs’ Global Principal Partner since 2014. Its ability to use a player of Son’s popularity in Asia-Pacific activations, and add an additional layer of emotional connection with the sponsorship, is a huge advantage. AIA has brought Son and selected teammates to South Korea for events including fan meet-and-greets, and employee and agent experiences. They have used Son to create local-language promotional content. The business value that the player offers to the sponsorship was no doubt a contributing factor when AIA decided to extend its partnership with Tottenham until the end of the 2026-27 season.
Son’s popularity has also placed a spotlight on the growth of sport and football in South Korea and the wider Apac region, a story that partners like AIA can drive through football development initiatives. In the last few years, AIA has reached more than 60,000 people across Apac through Spurs coaching programmes. These have supported football participation and been an impactful vehicle for AIA to push messages around active living and healthy eating, and tackling health issues including diabetes and obesity.
Whilst the number of Asian players playing in Europe is still small, we can expect to see it rise as domestic leagues in the region grow in terms of quality and commercial understanding, and top European clubs continue to open and operate academies in the region.
Asian players have the potential to be some of the most valuable commodities in the game, both in terms of their sporting abilities and the number of passionate fans they bring with them. They can be powerful assets for clubs and brands, to amplify their marketing strategies and connect with audiences on a more local and emotional level.
Sebastian Page is an account director at CSM Hong Kong.