x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Asia's golden egg is still not cracked

Fernando Torres thinks Spain's Primera Liga must adopt plans for earlier kick-offs if it wants to compete with the Premier League in Asia and the Middle East.

Fernando Torres thinks Spain's Primera Liga must adopt plans for earlier kick-offs if it wants to compete with the Premier League in Asia and the Middle East. "La Liga is already lagging behind in not playing matches at 3pm (6pm UAE time)," said Liverpool's Torres this weekend. "The Premier League has the best media profile in the world. Part of that success is down to the times of the matches which mean they can be watched all around the world, especially in Asia and the Middle East."

Spanish games can kick off at 10pm (midnight UAE). It is an unpopular time for match going fans, but in Beijing, that is 4am - not much use to the live Asian market. Real Madrid have followed Manchester United and the top English clubs by working hard to work out how to increase profits from abroad for decades - still, it appears, without any clear strategy for success. United have tried the hardest, investing much of their pre-season energy in travelling round Asia seven times between 1995 and 2009.

A 2008 survey commissioned by the American Glazer family which owns the club claimed United have 333 million fans - one in 20 of the planet's inhabitants. Seventy per cent of these are in Asia, yet while United talk up the size of their eastern support, its measurable financial value is limited, accounting for less than one per cent of the club's £245 millon (Dh1.42bn) turnover. Real's Emilio Butragueno wants earlier matches to boost their earnings abroad, but would it work? Real, Barcelona and the big four English clubs have millions of fans globally, but the vast majority do not pay anything for the privilege.

The sales of replica shirts are exaggerated because counterfeiting remains a serious issue in Asia and lower wage economies affect the ability of clubs to replicate the merchandise success they have achieved in the Europe. Why, for instance, would a Thai fan of any big club buy an official shirt for £50 when they could pick up a convincing replica (of a replica) for £5? Manchester City are seeing a surge in popularity. I recently saw City shirts alongside those of far more successful clubs in the markets of Mumbai. All were fakes.

Then there are friendly matches. In Asia, United and Real have accepted lower match fees because they considered them a loss leader for future revenues, but the suffocating fan hysteria of the Far East tours proved unpopular with players. Sir Alex Ferguson has been frequently concerned about the physical condition of the club's prime assets after extensive long-haul flights and debilitating games against poor opposition in soaring temperatures.

And there is the golden egg itself, the broadcast deals which boost the profile - except potential viewers do not want to pay. The Premier League's three-year domestic rights cost £1.7bn and the foreign rights £625m - the biggest overseas deal for sport in the world. In 2007, Showtime Arabia paid £60m for the Middle East and North African market, NowTV spent £100m to secure the rights for Hong Kong, while WinTV spent £50m in an auction to show games in China.

The Chinese deal saw raised eyebrows as WinTV was a little known operator who hoped to build up its subscription base using football. The Premier League's smaller clubs, with no interest in the Chinese market, were happy to take the deal which offered the most money up front, yet WinTV have just 30,000 subscribers in a country of 1.3 billion and viewing figures are so low they cannot be registered, exploding the myth that hundreds of millions of Chinese are glued to the Premier League and offering little hope to the Primera Liga giants looking for extra cash.