How Liverpool FC’s new managing director Billy Hogan plans to expand club’s reach – and revenue – in China and Asia
President Xi’s focus on football in the country is “a terrific opportunity” for everyone involved in the game, says American
Liverpool FC went above and beyond with the now-customary Lunar New Year video this year.
Far from the usual player dragged off the training pitch to butcher “xin nian kuai le”, they produced a dual-language eight-minute epic that saw manager Juergen Klopp “phone” former table tennis great Deng Yaping, “Chinese Athlete of the Century”, for assistance in a match against Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.
“It got over two million views on our Chinese social media channels alone,” says Billy Hogan, the club’s new managing director proudly.
Efforts like that explain why the Reds are the third most influential team on China’s internet, according to a report this week, despite not having won the league for more than 25 years and with only one trophy, the League Cup, in the last decade. (Manchester United and Bayern Munich, far more successful, were first and second).
With Liverpool only ninth in the Deloitte Money League that ranks the world’s richest football clubs, keeping that huge potential Chinese fanbase “activated and engaged” in marketing speak – happy and ready to open their wallets – will be vital to help end that trophy drought.
That’s one of the main tasks facing Hogan as he takes over as the main man in charge of off-the-pitch matters following the departure of long-time CEO Ian Ayre.
Hogan has been involved with Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, since 2004 and moved to the UK in 2014 to head up the club’s commercial arm at a dedicated London office.
“Asia is incredibly important for us,” he tells me in one of his first interviews since his promotion. “More than half of our fanbase is located in Asia ... when you think about the most recent surveys, Liverpool’s fanbase is over 700m on a global basis and a big contingent of that is based in Asia.
“Hong Kong in particular is a hotbed and that’s one of the reasons we’re focused on it ... it’s also a very important market for many of our partners, especially [shirt sponsors] Standard Chartered of course.”
Liverpool are coming to Hong Kong and Shanghai this summer to play in the Premier League’s Asia Trophy (Hogan insists it is not yet confirmed), and former players Jason McAteer, Sami Hyypia, Patrik Berger, Luis Garcia and Vladimir Smicer will be pressing the flesh and signing autographs all next week in a Hong Kong mall as part of the “LFC World” promotion.
“Generally the Asian market is very important, and China is very important as well as a significant part of Asia and one where sport and football is obviously growing and a major focus, not just from a corporate and fan perspective, but also government perspective with president Xi’s soccer reform movement now in place the last few years,” says Hogan.
“We’re always focused on what we can be doing in those marketplaces ... on-the-ground activities like touring obviously we are relatively limited in the number of times we can bring the first team out; we also do a number of on-the-ground activities in addition to LFC World.
“In addition to that we do work very closely on the social media side and digital media side to activate and engage with fans. One thing we’ve been working on over the last several years is not just to expand our social and digital media offering in terms of number of outlets and channels but to look at those channels in terms of local languages to be able to speak to fans directly.”
According to Deloitte, Liverpool’s 2015/16 revenue of £403 million is some £200 to £300 million less than the likes of United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern. But revenue has risen every year since FSG took the club over from the reviled Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and with the recent expansion of Anfield to 54,000, the trend should continue.
FSG dismissed reports Liverpool would be the next Premier League club targeted for a Chinese takeover, but it does seem likely that a Chinese firm could sponsor the redeveloped Main Stand, with Hogan reportedly looking for £5 to £10 million a year for the privilege.
No wonder he says of China’s new-found desire to spend big on football: “The top line what it represents is a terrific opportunity – where there is growth for the sport, that’s good for everybody.”
Hogan and his team are actively seeking new partnerships on the mainland. As well as two million Weibo followers and a popular WeChat account, they have dedicated stores on Tmall and JD.com, China’s two biggest e-commerce sites. They are also in “active conversations” about setting up some sort of soccer school or academy project in the country.
“For Liverpool, based on our data we know we have a significant fanbase in China already, the activity and interest has not just been over the last few years, but previously as well.
“We’ve done a lot of activities on the ground in China over the last several years and are looking more directly at what we can do in the marketplace.
“More generally, [China’s attention to football] is a positive thing – the Premier League has announced its new [US$700 million China] TV deal that will kick in in 2019, so it’s a focus from a league perspective – and certainly from our perspective.”