As English soccer’s Premier League sides Leicester City and Manchester United prepare for tonight’s FA Community Shield match at Wembley Stadium, it is not only the silverware that will be glinting in Asian eyes.
For King Power, the Thai duty-free conglomerate closely entwined with minnows-turned-champions Leicester, the match represents a triumph of exposure regardless of which team wins. So too for the various Asian sponsors of 20-time champions United, from “official diesel engine partner” Yanmar and “official equipment partner” Epson, both from Japan, to Wahaha, its “official soft drinks partner in China”.
Today, on screens worldwide, they will be the most visible of the region’s many deep-pocketed corporate sponsors who have bet millions of pounds linking their brands to Premier League teams, hoping to grow sales revenue from the league’s ballooning global audience.
Leading Asian brands with prime real estate on Premier League jerseys include – as well as Hong Kong’s own AIA (Tottenham Hotspur) and GWFX (Swansea City) – Japan’s Yokohama Tyres (Chelsea), Dubai’s Emirates (Arsenal), Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways (Manchester City) and Thailand’s Chang beer (Everton). Next season Watford, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace – sponsored by Asia-facing betting firms 138.com, UK-K8 and the last two by Mansion respectively – will have Chinese characters on their jerseys.
The weekly reach of the league’s live broadcasts, coupled with relentless coverage of the teams on mainstream and social media make these multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals a bargain, analysts say.
The league had 2.7 billion global viewers last season, 38 per cent of whom were from Asia and Oceania.
Sports marketing agency Repucom this year reported 87 per cent of the €330 million (HK$2.8 billion) invested in the league’s “front of shirt” sponsorship industry last season came from outside Britain.
“It’s just purely about buying exposure or eyeballs. Most of the games are shown live in China and throughout Asia and there are going to be eyeballs no matter who’s playing,” said Carsten Thode, chief strategy officer at London-based Synergy Sponsorship.
Rupert Pratt, director of marketing firm Mongoose Sports and Entertainment, said Asian firms sponsoring Premier League teams stood to gain “instant credibility and overnight brand awareness” at home and abroad.
“This comes not from the football on the pitch, but rather the incredible amount of hard work put in by clubs over the last decade to develop and grow their fan bases in Asia,” Pratt said.
Thode, a former corporate strategist with Manchester United, said Leicester’s fairytale victory last season had piqued firms’ interest in clubs not among the traditional front runners. The two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea command large premiums over the rest of the league.
Manchester United currently bags £53 million (HK$539 million) annually from Chevrolet for on-shirt advertising, and has a £75 million-a-year deal with its kit manufacturer, Adidas.
King Power, on the other hand, forks out a mere £1 million annually in sponsorship fees. The firm’s founder and chairman, Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, also owns Leicester.
“There is a steep drop-off between the traditional powerhouses and the teams people expect to be more towards the bottom of the table,” Thode said. Advertising with lower-tier clubs could “be cost effective but of course King Power would not have been talked about had Leicester been relegated instead,” Thode added.
But sponsorship deals with even the most illustrious clubs do not always translate into corporate success.
Chinese smartphone maker Huawei in June ended a tie-up with Arsenal as its “official smartphone partner” after just two years.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business at Britain’s Salford University, said the partnership floundered because Huawei did little to capitalise on Arsenal’s global brand.
The company launched an Arsenal-themed edition of its Ascend P7 soon after it signed the partnership in 2014, but garnered only limited visibility throughout the rest of the two-year period.
“They needed to spend in a creative and significant way” to make the deal work for them, Chadwick said.
“Not activating a sponsorship is one of the areas in which companies fail to achieve the maximum benefit from deals in which they are engaged,” he said.
Pratt, the London-based marketing firm director, said companies rushing to sponsor Premier League teams risked running into “sponsorship clutter”.
“You could get lost in the sea of corporate partners. There are 20 clubs all with five or six partners and all competing for the same fan base,” he said.
Still, Asian businesses – in particular Chinese firms – have signalled an appetite to stomach the risks to capitalise on their football-crazy domestic markets.
Only on Friday, a Chinese investment group led by entrepreneur Guochuan Lai announced it had bought Premier League club West Bromwich Albion.
And another Chinese businessman, Tony Xia, bought Aston Villa for a reported US$87 million in May following their relegation from the top flight. Last December, state-backed consortium China Media Capital invested US$400 million to take a 13 per cent stake in City Football Group, the owners of Manchester City.
Elsewhere, home appliance and electronics retailer Suning in June bought a 69 per cent stake in Italian football club Interfor €270 million (HK$2.3 billion).
China’s leading corporate brands such as Alibaba, Sinopec and China Construction Bank have yet to sponsor top European teams, but experts say this may change soon.
Cathy Ziyi Sun, a Shanghai-based analyst with Daxue Consulting, said China’s corporate titans were likely to compete for Premier League deals as they sought global exposure, but would also be expected to support the Chinese Super League.
“Once the Chinese league comes up to the standard of the English Premier League, the companies may face a backlash from the public if they choose not to sponsor the local clubs,” Sun said.
Alibaba Group is the owner of the South China Morning Post.