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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

English football's popularity overshadows Asian hopes

Nowhere is the contrast between the draw of the EPL and apathy towards local leagues as stark as Singapore

A steadicam TV camera films the English Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium. English football's dominance is a problem for most Asian leagues Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images
A steadicam TV camera films the English Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium. English football's dominance is a problem for most Asian leagues Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

This English Premier League (EPL) season saw the start of a new three-year cycle for the global television rights to the most popular domestic competition on the planet.

Broadcasters worldwide are paying a grand total of £8.3 billion (Dh40.47bn) to screen the matches with a significant percentage of this sum coming from Asia.

It gives clubs in England’s top tier clubs unprecedented wealth, which many have used to bolster their squads with extravagant signings. But, for domestic leagues in Asia, the popularity of the EPL is very much a mixed blessing because it means fans are more inclined to watch English football on the television than local football in an actual stadium.

The regional broadcaster BeinSport holds the EPL rights for territories across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Last time out the broadcaster paid US$315 million to the EPL for the equivalent period of time and the undisclosed deal signed for the 2017-2020 period is likely to be worth significantly more.

In the BeinSport heartland of Qatar local football is struggling. The country might gearing up for the 2022 World Cup but Uri Levy, who covers Middle East football for Babagoal, says the domestic league is largely overlooked,

“In Saudi Arabia the local league is highly popular and there are huge mega clubs that attract fans from all over the Arab world and Asia. In other leagues its really depends on the teams, while in the Emirates the local league is not so popular and teams hardly fill stadiums.”

He thinks the gulf in quality between Middle East football and European football makes it impossible to draw direct comparisons,

“The local leagues will never reach the level of EPL football, at least not in the near future, so there's no competition. It's simply two different dishes in one big restaurant.”

Whether digital or linear there are so many platforms to watch football on in the modern era that the restaurant analogy is apt. But what local domestic competitions can offer fans is the opportunity to attend a live match without having to fly half way around the world.

Anthony Sutton is based in Jakarta. He is the author of Sepakbola, a book about Indonesian football, and says it is one of very few countries in South East Asia that has a strong stadium culture,

“Teams like Persija, Persib, Persebaya and PSS all average in excess of 20,000 at their home games and the last two play in the second tier. Indonesian clubs have history that is passed down from father to son, people here support their local team and take great pride in their local side.

"Even if they move away from their home town they keep supporting their local side.”

Thailand is home to the best league in South East Asia in terms of technical ability, according to Mr Sutton. BeinSport recently paid $300m for the EPL broadcast rights there and if you asked the average man on the street in Bangkok which team he supported the answer is much more likely to be "Manchester United" than "Muang Thong United".

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The Thai Premier League just started a four-year deal with the local broadcaster True Vision which is worth 4.2bn baht. This means the EPL is worth over three times as much as the top tier of the local league to broadcasters in Thailand, which gives a good idea of the struggles facing domestic football in the region

In Indonesia BeinSport paid $75m to broadcast the EPL for three seasons, starting in August. It represented a decrease of approximately $15m on the cost of the previous three-year cycle and Sutton thinks the popularity of local teams could be a factor,

“It is common to see fans from Semen Padang or PSM, for example, supporting their team hundreds of miles from home on different islands in different time zones. They have that connection with the team going back generations,” he said.

Thailand’s top teams are the Bangkok-based Muang Thong United and Buriram FC, a club situated in the provincial North East. They have existed in their current incarnation for 10 years and five years, respectively, so do not have the same history as some of the Indonesian clubs.

For countries like Indonesia and Thailand seeing a homegrown footballer succeed in the EPL remains a distant dream. But Japanese players have been heading to Europe for years and Alan Gibson, who produces JSoccer magazine, thinks this has damaged the popularity of the J-League back home.

“The main problem in my opinion is not the quality of overseas football attracting fans, it is all the Japanese players going overseas that are followed by fans who saw them grow up. They are very loyal and possessive fans and the more players J-League loses the more fans follow them.”

In Japan MP & Silva paid $90m for the current three year cycle of EPL TV rights. It is a relatively modest sum that reflects the fact that in this Asian country football sometimes takes a back seat to popular spectator sports like baseball, sumo and even rugby.

One domestic competition in Asia with genuine aspirations to compete with the EPL, at least in terms of attracting the top players, is the Chinese Super League. Salaries are spectacular with the Argentina international Ezequiel Lavezzi earning £798,000 a week while his countryman and former Manchester City favourite Carlos Tevez and the Brazilian Oscar take home £634,615 and £400,000, respectively.

Cameron Wilson covers Chinese football for www.wildeastfootball.net. He says there has always been a lot of money in the game there but that new rules and regulations have put a halt to the influx of big-name signings from Europe,

“The money had been there for quite some time but the international media didn’t really notice until the likes of [the Brazilian player] Hulk and Oscar signed. The government made new rules forcing teams to pay a 100 per cent tax on transfer fees towards a ‘development fund’ if the club was not in profit, which no Chinese club is.”

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Chelsea are among the European sides currently lamenting this change of direction. Having previously sold Oscar and Ramires to Chinese clubs, for £52m and £25m respectively, they were braced for a £76m Tianjin bid for wantaway striker Diego Costa that would almost certainly have been accepted.

The bid never materialised and instead Chelsea ended up accepting a slightly more modest £58m from Atletico Madrid. But the influx of former EPL players into Chinese football does not appear to have damaged the marketability of the English league with the current broadcast deal with the digital broadcaster PPTV worth £564m.

This is the highest amount paid by any broadcaster for the rights to a single country but the figure is more reflective of the sheer size of the audience in China than the EPL’s popularity there. According to Mr Wilson the Chinese Super League (CSL) is already holding its own in that respect,

“In China there are a lot of EPL fans just as there are in most countries, but the CSL has a good fan culture with several clubs, such as Shandong, Beijing and Shanghai Shenhua having a devoted hardcore following. The trend is towards more fans following CSL at the expense of foreign clubs.”

Nowhere is the contrast between the popularity of the EPL and apathy towards local leagues as stark as Singapore. Mr Sutton is based in Jakarta but travels all over South East Asia to attend matches and is not upbeat about the prospects for the city-state's S-League,

“That is a battle Singapore has lost I feel. People are happy to pay S$100 (Dh269) for a replica shirt of a team from a city they probably couldn't find on a map yet are loath to pay S$5 or S$6 to watch their own local side.”

Mr Sutton simply does not see it in terms of a competition between local leagues and the EPL. He feels the popularity of local football in Indonesia is proof that domestic matches can offer something that televised overseas games cannot,

“One major problem across the region is that people try to compare English football with local football on a like for like basis and see their local game falling short on a number of levels. They are not similar.

"Football is a window into its host society and should be seen as such. To compare the local game with the English game as seen on TV is a false equivalence and doesn't take into account local circumstances or cultures.”

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