Asia should take a united stand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


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Perhaps Manchester United should consider staying at Chungking Mansions if they visit Hong Kong next summer. After all, it costs first-class accommodation prices to stay at this landmark these days. But this is what the Red Devils want if they are to come here: first-class accommodation, first-class travel, and oh, not to forget, the trifling sum of US$3 million as appearance fees.

It is not surprising then that the Hong Kong Football Association has baulked at the absurd price. It is outrageous that United should ask for this sort of money to play one game - a pre-season friendly at that. The HKFA should tell the English Premier League giants to take a hike.

Manchester United may be the most popular team in the world, but it would be verging on the criminal to pay them US$3 million for a friendly, with the added costs of flights and hotel accommodation to boot. No team are worth this kind of money, not until Hong Kong has a stadium capable of filling at least 55,000 fans.

HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak was on the money when he said the economics just didn't work with the current capacity of the So Kon Po stadium. At 40,000 seats, Leung said, the HKFA would need to price a ticket at HK$1,000 to met United's demands.

Let's do the maths. If tickets were priced at HK$1,000, it would bring in revenue of HK$40 million. Take 20 per cent (HK$8 million) away as hiring costs - which we have always maintained are shocking - charged by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and that would leave a balance of HK$32 million. Pay Manchester United their claim of HK$24 million (US$3 million) and you are left with HK$8 million.

Once the costs of airfares and hotels - rooms at Chungking Mansions are going for HK$3,000 for a night these days because of strong demand for accommodation - are deducted for a party which will be more than 60-strong, the HKFA will be left with chump change. All this assuming the fans would flock in at HK$1,000 a ticket.

When Chelsea, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers turned up for the Barclays Asia Trophy this summer, when they played alongside domestic champions Kitchee, the most expensive tickets were priced at HK$460, and this to watch two games a day. Fans are unlikely to pay HK$1,000 for one game, even to watch Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand up close and personal.

'It may be easier to do it in China where you can find stadiums with a capacity of 70,000 or 80,000 like the Bird's Nest,' Leung said. He is right. If Hong Kong had a bigger stadium, the HKFA would have been able to charge a more reasonable rate.

But this is not the real issue. The question we must ask is why a team like Manchester United should be allowed to get away with asking these exorbitant sums just to play an exhibition game? They are hoping to make a pre-season Asian tour next summer and have factored in stops on the mainland as well as Macau.

Wouldn't it be just great if China, Macau and Hong Kong all got together and decided among themselves that they were not going to be robbed silly by Manchester United? Wouldn't it be just perfect if in the future, a cartel of sorts is formed between the HKFA, the Chinese Football Association and their Macau counterparts whereby a ceiling was set on the appearance fees for the likes of United, Barcelona or Real Madrid?

Maybe we should include the rest of soccer-mad Asia in this lobby, too - Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for starters. Is this a pipedream? I don't think so, especially if it is the national associations involved. There is no way to stop an individual club with money to burn from inviting a top European side for a friendly. But if all the governing bodies in Asia banded together and set a limit on how much they would pay the world stars, then it might be to the benefit of all.

It will only work if there is a collective will. Asia, which was once colonised by European powers, is now being plundered by the soccer giants from those same lands. The money is in Asia now. Europe lies in ruins and is in debt to the world. Manchester United know they have to look to Asia for cash to replenish their war chest, which has hit been hit by the club's elimination from the Champions League and an early exit from the FA Cup.

In 2010, Manchester United were ranked third in the Money League (annual revenue earned by clubs), netting GBP286.4 million (HK$3,45 billion) and behind only Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. This year the gap between them and second-placed Barcelona has increased. Times are tough, and Asia offers riches waiting to be plucked.

Leung has said the visit will not go ahead unless a rich sponsor is found. The HKFA shouldn't even bother looking for one.