“I have no religion, I have no God. Liverpool Football Club is my religion, it is a way of life for me.”
This is how Singapore-born Vijay, about 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) from Anfield in Liverpool, spoke of how passionate he is as he has been waiting since 2011 for his team to visit his home city.
He’s not the only one. Earlier this month, more than 50,000 fans filled the Singapore National Stadium for a friendly match between Liverpool and Crystal Palace.
After three years of travel bans due to the Corona pandemic, the Premier League teams are once again touring the world this summer before the start of the season.
The financial significance of these trips is hard to overstate. When Manchester United recorded a loss of commercial revenue of about $ 56 million in 2021, the club attributed it “mainly” to the crisis caused by the Corona pandemic, and one of the results of which was the cancellation of the first team’s tour in India.
But with the easing of restrictions, many clubs are rushing back to their first overseas market.
“Asia is the largest region in terms of the number of our club’s fans,” Liverpool chief executive Billy Hogan told the BBC.
“Someone once told me you can park in any airport, jump on any plane and have a reason to go there and find Liverpool fans. A third of our global support is here and we feel we have a huge opportunity in Asia.”
This summer’s rivals, Manchester United, chose to visit Thailand and Australia, where he played a match against Liverpool and another against Crystal Palace.
While Tottenham Hotspur went to South Korea, the home of Son Heung-min.
From a sporting point of view, these trips are worthless. Long trips to remote areas with sweltering temperatures and humid weather do not provide the perfect opportunity to prepare for a new season in England.
“It’s not my favorite thing,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp in response to a question from the BBC at a press conference.
“First of all I’m a coach and if we can play for two weeks in Austria and train twice a day there it will be even better.”
“But we know how big our fan base is in Asia and being close to them is great.”
In fact, the controversy in the corridors of football has long been brought to an end. The commercial argument has won out emphatically and this summer the managers of the top clubs will feel that the high levels of demand they have seen in the region have confirmed this.
New figures reported this year show that for the first time ever the Premier League will get more revenue from broadcasting its matches abroad than it will get from local channels in the UK. Asia alone is expected to reach $1.4 billion between next season and 2025.
In South Korea, tickets for Tottenham Hotspur’s exhibition match against a local team sold out within 25 minutes. The match also became the most broadcast sporting event in the country’s history.
Meanwhile, match promoters in Bangkok felt comfortable setting the price for the cheapest ticket for a friendly match between Manchester United and Liverpool at $136. In Singapore the cheapest ticket was $107.
Those prices are much higher than fans would expect to pay in England for a competitive game, but they are ultimately a magnet for the top clubs in the Premier League.
A Liverpool spokesperson told the BBC: “We have not set these ticket prices. We charge a set fee, and we don’t get any share of the proceeds from the sale of tickets.”
The amounts that teams receive for these far-fetched friendlies are kept top secret, but analysts say fees alone are unlikely to justify the trips, especially when travel and staff expenses are taken into account.
“Teams don’t really earn huge amounts of money directly from these friendlies, maybe a few million dollars per game for the best teams,” said Kevin McCullagh, Asia Pacific editor for Sports Business.
“But there is something much more important about building the brand and connecting with fans in a market that will generate much more revenue in the long run from broadcast rights deals and sponsorship deals with Asian brands and companies, and therein lies the real payoff.”
While in Singapore, Liverpool signed a new contract said to be worth more than $240 million with Standard Chartered, an Asia-focused bank, in exchange for their players to have his name on their shirts.
Apart from helping to boost the sponsor’s image on the global stage, football clubs can also provide the sponsor with a treasure trove of consumer data.
Manchester United, for example, estimates their customer relationship management database is 50 million while the number of interactions with the team on social media last year was 176 million.
So in exchange for the money the sponsors spend on the team, its marketing department often gets valuable insight into the consumer behavior of the millions of fans who have signed up or become involved with the club at some point in the past.
“The first thing major sponsors will ask is to see fan data,” McCullagh said.
“Before sponsors invest they want to know how many fans the club has, demographics, ages, how many men, how many women, their income, things like that,” he added.
For many years other sports leagues including the European Football Championships looked with envy to the English Premier League which was the first to come to Asia and establish business relations in the 1990s.
The English Premier League’s competitiveness, unique fan culture and connection to the English language made it the world’s most watched sports league, attracting a total audience of 3.2 billion globally.
The Premier League says half of the global fan base and a quarter of television audiences are in the Asia-Pacific region, although matches often end in the middle of the night.
However, experts say it will be difficult to retain all those fans, especially with the wide range of entertainment and consumption style options available to younger generations.
“Young people are no longer interested in football. They have other platforms to entertain themselves,” Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, said last year.
This view combined with expectations that television revenues will eventually decline have convinced some executives at Europe’s top football clubs that a new competition should be organized to keep fans engaged.
Many expected the ill-fated European Super League project, which was introduced last year and would have involved five Premier League clubs, would attract millions of fans around the world and especially in Asia who would rather watch the elite than the mediocre ones.
But the project was eventually canceled after an angry reaction from fans both in the UK and globally.
“European football clubs should not pin their hopes on the Asian market, they should fight for every dollar they earn,” says Simon Chadwick, global professor of sports at Emilion Business School in France.
“Asian consumers are smart, sophisticated and informed. You could say that in recent years there has been some distancing from European football among Asian fans so clubs are advised not to be arrogant or naive in assuming that Asia is the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Chadwick also said the chances of playing Premier League matches abroad, something that was first suggested in 2008, is out of the question in the short and medium term although controversy over that will eventually resurface.
Back in Singapore, Vijay takes off his shirt and shows his back. Covered in Liverpool FC tattoos and the years of every trophy he’s won in the club’s history, he’s optimistic about the future.
“My dad was a Liverpool fan and the first thing I did with my little girls was to get them to wear the Liverpool shirt. This will go on through the generations, believe me.”
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