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Business trends

Asian companies look to score business from soccer boom

Sport's growth in China and ASEAN offers an in with young consumers

China is a major growth market for soccer.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Soccer is becoming a big business in Asia as annual attendance of major leagues outside Japan swells to more than 15 million people, with both teams and advertisers competing for the attention of a young audience with rising incomes.

Thai powerhouse Buriram United plans to conduct an initial public offering in 2019, President Newin Chidchob told Nikkei.

The club, which clinched a seventh top-flight league title on Sept. 27, aims to raise around 200 million baht ($6.17 million) by listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand's startup-oriented Market for Alternative Investment. The proceeds will be used to fund esports, or competitive multiplayer video gaming, and athletic rehabilitation facilities to expand the team's fan base further.

Newin envisions modeling Buriram United after the titans of European soccer.

The former politician -- who supported former populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before jumping ship to the opposition -- bought the team in 2009, moved it to his hometown in the northeastern province of Buriram, and had a 32,600-seat stadium built for it. Buriram United has attracted such prominent sponsors as Japan's Yamaha Motor and signed talented players, enabling it to compete in the regional AFC Champions League nearly every year since 2012.

Soccer has grown more popular in much of Asia of late, with the top leagues in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and India drawing more than 1 million spectators a year, according to research firm Euromonitor and Japan's Dentsu. The spread of smartphones and cable television have helped the sport make inroads even in cricket-mad India.

China has drawn particular attention as a growth market. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, the country's most successful team, earned 76.3 million euros ($89 million at current rates) in revenue in 2016, according to Deloitte's annual Football Money League report. That is more than the 7.9 billion yen ($69.7 million) reported for fiscal 2017 by the Urawa Red Diamonds -- the top-earning club in Japan, where the sport is better established.

"In the next 10 years we expect to see at least one, and perhaps as many as three, Chinese club[s] challenge for a place in the top 20" worldwide, Evergrande Taobao's management told Deloitte. The team is majority owned by developer Evergrande Group, with Alibaba Group Holding -- operator of the Taobao e-retail site -- holding a 38% stake.

Many Asian nations remain low in FIFA's world rankings and have yet to compete in a World Cup. But the sport's popularity looks likely to keep growing in these young and increasingly affluent countries, and businesses are taking notice. China's Ping An Insurance Group has sponsored the Chinese Super League since 2014, seeking to bolster its name recognition among younger consumers less familiar with the insurance market.

Japanese companies are using soccer to boost their profiles elsewhere in Asia as well.

Farm equipment maker Yanmar in May announced it would renew its sponsorship of the AFF Suzuki Cup, a regional competition contested among the national teams of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and aspiring ASEAN member Timor-Leste. This lets it put its logo on official materials and in-stadium advertising during games. Suzuki Motor has been the tournament's title sponsor since 2008.

Toyota Motor is the main sponsor of Thailand's main soccer league, having renewed its position with a four-year deal in 2017. The automaker has supported soccer in the country since 1987.

The Japan Professional Football League has signed partnership agreements with counterparts in eight countries, including Thailand and Vietnam. "Asian soccer has a substantial presence, and its growth potential is higher than Japan's," said Takeyuki Oya, J.League's head of international marketing.

Leading European clubs are looking to capitalize on the soccer boom by setting up offices and soccer academies in major Asian cities.

Germany's Bayern Munich said in September it will establish a school in the city of Taiyuan in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi to train Chinese coaches as well as young players. The club also has academies in Qingdao and Shenzhen.

FC Barcelona, one of Spain's two dominant teams, has set up a network of schools across the Asia-Pacific, with Hong Kong as its regional headquarters. Its sponsorship agreement with Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten is part of its strategy to strengthen its Asian presence.

Rival Real Madrid has opened an office in Beijing and counts South Korea's Hankook Tire among its sponsors. The team plans to work with Hong Kong-based Lai Sun Group to build a soccer entertainment center in Guangdong Province, slated to open in 2021, where fans can learn about Real Madrid's history and experience soccer in virtual and augmented reality.

La Liga, Spain's top league, has offices in such cities as Beijing and Tokyo. The league wants to hold more matches at times that let Asian fans watch live, said Ivan Codina, managing director for Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

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