Many clubs are global names and can reap financial rewards in the summer
Football's preseason season is a major money-spinner for some
The culmination of the fifth International Champions Cup (ICC) in Singapore last month brought the curtain down on the main pre-season period for the big European football clubs.
Pre-season tournaments such as ICC, which in the lead-up to the final relocated the English Manchester derby to Houston and Spanish equivalent El Clásico to Miami, are increasingly vital to clubs, according to a report launched on Monday by Brand Finance.
“A section of our study looks at what drives loyalty and pre-season and meet and greets are both valuable. It’s promoting your brand. Almost everything a club can do to attract fans and families is hugely worthwhile,” says Finn Dowley, the football analyst at Brand Finance.
In the ICC, 17 of Europe’s biggest clubs played in China, Singapore and the United States. Spain’s AC Milan and arch-rivals Inter travelled to China along with the German Bundesliga sides Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and French Ligue 1 giants Lyon. The English Premier League (EPL) champions Chelsea, plus Bayern and Inter also played in Singapore.
“Asian markets are so fanatical about the [top European] players that their presence there is huge,” adds Mr Dowley. “Going out there produces so much excitement as there’s a certain mystique.
“In Malaysia and Indonesia, the growth has happened organically as the Premier League has been very good at marketing itself, but
in China it’s all happened so quickly.
In China, the loyalty among fans is that they support their local club and also Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Arsenal. The more fanatical the fans are, the more clubs they support.”
This fanaticism is driving pre-season tour schedules as European clubs look to globalise and commercialise their fan bases.
Demand for European football merchandise in China is so strong that in 2015 Real Madrid set up a club merchandise operation with Chinese web platform Alibaba and launched this with a pre-season tour.
According to Brand Finance’s report, Football in China: Knowledge and engagement of Chinese Football fans, 57 per cent of all Chinese fans bought club merchandise and 41 per cent purchased a club shirt. These is also a spin-off benefit for sponsors, with Brand Finance research showing that 42 per cent of Chinese fans bought brands that sponsor their favourite club.
The ICC has helped to drive this commercialisation of pre-season. The tournament began in 2013 in the US and expanded to Australia and Asia in 2015. It has attracted a slew of high-profile sponsors from Heineken to the watchmaker Tag Heuer and Thomas Cook Sport, which is the official match-breaks partner. But what do sponsors get out of these pre-season tournaments?
“There is a huge demand for these pre-season tours, as we’ve seen with crowds hitting 90,000-plus at certain fixtures. These fans are not just from that home country, but as tourists either already in the area on holiday or supporters specifically travelling for the occasion,” says Rob Slawson, head of Thomas Cook Sport.
Thomas Cook is building on existing relationships, as the company is official supporter and travel partner to the EPL’s Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. “We recognised that we had a selection of supporters who expressed an interest so it made sense to create this partnership for the ICC,” adds Mr Slawson.
After becoming the EPL’s first official timekeeper in 2016, Tag Heuer took the same role for five ICC games in the US. Other new sponsors also have links with competing clubs.
The US car maker Chevrolet is Manchester United’s shirt sponsor and the financial services group Aon sponsors the club’s training kit. This year, both companies joined the ICC’s roster of sponsors.
Links between the ICC and club deals are not always direct. The South Korean tyre manufacturer Nexen Tire sponsors the ICC and Melbourne City, which is the Australian sister club of regular ICC participant, Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City.
For clubs and sponsors, pre-season offers a chance to cash in on existing deals.
“Pre-season is more a case of clubs trying to finance pre-season by going abroad and selling a few more shirts,” says Anthony Marcou, the chief executive of the marketing agency Sports Revolution. “For a big sponsor like AIA [shirt sponsor at Tottenham], it’s a case of how do they activate in a new territory? It’s more an obligation for sponsors and tends to be the bigger clubs who go abroad as they have a bigger following.”
Sponsors can use leverage from existing deals to surprising lengths, as Everton’s trip to Tanzania last month illustrates.
In May this year, Everton announced a five-year deal with SportPesa, an online betting company based in East Africa. Two months later, Wayne Rooney and Everton were making a 23,000km round trip to the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam for a one-off friendly with the Kenyan Premier League champions Gor Mahia.
SportPesa sponsors both Everton and Gor Mahia. The visit was the first by an EPL club to East Africa, providing some kudos for the sponsors, who capitalised on the opportunities offered by the off-season.
“The summer months are the last bit of unregulated space in football, a moment when famous players and clubs are not restricted by league and national team event schedules,” says Adrian Pettett, the chief executive of HSE Cake, Havas’ sport and entertainment agency in the United Kingdom.
Everton’s trip to Africa originated through the club’s relationship with a sponsor, but independent promoters typically put on high-profile pre-season games.
Those promoters, who must all be match agent-licensed by the world football governing body Fifa, pay clubs a fee – often US$1 million or more per a game for major teams – then seek to make their money back through selling advertising, TV rights and tickets. Making the books balance is not easy.
“We were approached by Besiktas and Schalke to help with a pre-season game in China this summer,” says Mr Marcou. “They approached us to see what we can do, but there’s not enough money there because the game was only being broadcast in Turkey, Germany and China; it’s not the Premier League.”
In the past two years, there has been a huge decrease in the number of licensed match agents. Before the 2015 pre-season began there were 316 licensed match agents, according to Fifa’s directory. Two years on the number of licensed agents has dwindled to 143.
Fifa is unable to give a precise reason for this fall, but agents say that an increase in commercial demands made by the clubs is part of the reason.
Pre-season can work for sponsors in building on existing brands, can give fans a treat and give club finances a boost – providing the right balance is achieved.
Mr Marcou cites Emirates’ sponsorship deal with Arsenal and the annual Emirates Cup at the club’s north London stadium. “The Emirates Cup is an institution,” says Mr Marcou.
“The main revenue is in ticket sales as it fills the Emirates Stadium for an extra two days for fans who can’t get tickets for Premier League games.”
This year’s Emirates Cup featured Arsenal, Portugal’s Benfica, Germany’s RB Leipzig and Spain’s Sevilla. The most expensive adult seats were £45 (Dh218), with concession tickets costing as little as £12.
Those sort of prices are unlikely to provoke the type of headlines generated by pre-season extravaganzas such as the ICC and will surely keep sponsors such as Emirates happier ahead of the new EPL season that kicks off in a week and a half.
But get it wrong and it can backfire on promoters, clubs and sponsors.
Tickets at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami for the relocated ICC El Clásico – Real Madrid v Barcelona – on July 29 were nearly nine times the price of admission to the Champions League final, according to British newspaper The Sun, prompting the headline: “Greed All About It”.
Those sorts of headlines will not encourage the sponsors.
“The vacuum for [football] news is filled with stories of players on the beach and transfer gossip, and a cottage industry has grown around the market for pre-season summer tours,” says Cake’s Mr Pettett.
“The idea is sound enough: to most of the world, the big European football leagues are a media product, consumed via TV, mobile and tablet. For a few weeks in the summer, event promoters can exploit the demand for top-flight football in Asia, the Middle East and the US.
“Team sponsors are often sold the idea that this is a chance to reach new people in lucrative growth markets – but the quality of the matches is variable and, for obvious reasons, managers are sometimes reluctant to risk their best players.
“So there’s a brand risk in offering below par product just because someone has paid a cheque.
“Unless it’s part of a coherent strategy on the part of the sponsor, it can sometimes all feel a bit irrelevant and cynical.”