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Business trends

Japan's soccer clubs look to score in Southeast Asia

Team sponsors raise brand recognition via players' schools and exhibition matches

Students in Yangon participate in a soccer program run by the Albirex Niigata club. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

YANGON -- Clubs from Japan's professional soccer league are trying to raise their profile in Southeast Asia through soccer schools and event sponsorship. They are also taking advantage of their growing popularity in the region to branch out into other fields and bring in additional income.

The operator of the Albirex Niigata club runs six children's soccer schools in Yangon, up from just one in 2014. It plans to double that figure by the end of 2021 with new schools outside the city.

Individual clubs are stepping up investment in Southeast Asia with the goal of finding promising talent and new sources of revenue. Team sponsors are also looking to raise brand recognition as they expand in the region.

"During our market research in Myanmar, we found it difficult to find instructors or locations to play soccer. Also, public education here lacks classes like music, art and physical education, which help cultivate creative skills," said Naoto Tamiya, chief strategy officer at Albirex Singapore. "Playing soccer is a good chance for them to learn skills like team work."

Albirex's business model is based on collecting fees from students that participate in the schools, as well as gaining sponsorship from companies that want to promote their image in the country.

The company has been investing abroad since 2004, when it came to Singapore. Its started operating a casino there in 2011, which is attached to the local satellite team's clubhouse. The overseas business now brings in annual revenue of about 4 billion yen ($36.1 million), significantly more than the parent company's 2.5 billion yen.

More recently, Albirex set up a health care company in Singapore in January 2018. It aims to lend its expertise to develop services for athletes, and has teamed up with textile maker Mitsufuji to introduce smart clothing that collects data such as heart rate and body temperature. One idea they are considering is developing wearables that prevent heatstroke.

Young athletes in Yangon shake hands with Naoto Tamiya, Albirex Singapore's chief strategy officer. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

Other Japanese clubs are following suit. Cerezo Osaka invited promising young players from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia to a soccer camp in Japan last year. The club's main sponsor, a farming equipment manufacturer, plans to expand operations in Southeast Asia.

Kawasaki Frontale has operated soccer schools and played matches in Vietnam since 2013, when it first faced off against a local team. The club has continued to play matches in the southern province of Binhduong, where there is a new residential district developed by Tokyu Group, the team's sponsor.

The popularity of Japanese soccer is rising in Southeast Asia. Players from the region can be found on clubs in Japan, and star player Keisuke Honda serves as general manager of Cambodia's national team.

Schools and athlete exchange programs may look like social work, but Japanese clubs are seeking concrete returns, said Albirex Niigata president Daisuke Korenaga.

"This isn't volunteer work. We're looking for benefits," Korenaga said.

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