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English soccer's battle for Asian fans heats up

KUALA LUMPUR -- In 2012, the English soccer club Manchester United claimed to have 659 million followers around the world -- almost a tenth of the planet's population. Yet while the club has made the commercial running in many areas, it is not the most popular English Premier League team in all markets.

According to a 2015 analysis of Twitter followers, Chelsea is number one in South America, Liverpool dominates in Australia and Arsenal is most popular in North America and North Africa. Yet, Manchester United has a big lead in Asia, where it claims to have 325 million followers. That is important.

With more than 4 billion people, and soccer established as the continent's favorite sport, Asia has become an increasingly important market for European soccer clubs. Asian countries paid a total of $1.47 billion for the rights to show EPL games from 2013 to 2016, out of a total worldwide price of $3.44 million.

Continued economic growth, against a background of slower growth in Europe, gives Asia even greater potential as a soccer market for the future, and is fueling a battle for fans and attention as Manchester United's domestic rivals fight for a bigger share of the Asian cake.

"We know interest in the game is growing rapidly in many parts of Asia," said Mark Gonnella, communications director at Arsenal, a London-based club that is one England's most successful sports enterprises, with 13 league titles. "We will continue to build engagement with our millions of passionate fans in the region through our digital channels, commercial partnerships and club tours."

For years, European clubs have been visiting Asia in their summer off-seasons, but these games are increasingly being used to supplement commercial and marketing activities. Arsenal is a good example of this trend: Until 2011, long-term coach Arsene Wenger, appointed in 1996, preferred to spend pre-season training in Europe. In the past five years, though, Arsenal has visited China and Malaysia twice, as well as Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam. Another Asian tour is planned for 2017.

"Wenger's had to accept that his pre-season plans are determined, at least in part, by the club's business strategy," said Dan Lowen, a leading London-based sports lawyer and partner at Couchmans, a U.K. law firm that specializes in sports issues. "That first tour [in 2011] was designed not merely to broaden their fan base and enhance their reputation globally, but also to open doors to new commercial opportunities with sponsors in the East."

Arsenal, whose team is known as the Gunners, has Twitter accounts in Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam. In China, the club has a presence on the country's main social media platforms as well as an official website that offers a Mandarin language version. There are staff stationed in Shanghai and Singapore to attract commercial partners such as Indosat, one of Indonesia's largest telecommunications companies, and Chinese lottery provider DJI Holdings. Arsenal also has soccer schools in seven Asian countries.

In the top three

Arsenal claims it is not far behind Manchester United in the crucial business of attracting global supporters. "We do not make direct comparisons with other premier league clubs," said Gonnella. "But with regards to our Twitter following we do know that we are consistently in the top three most followed premier league clubs both in Asia and globally."

A 2016 survey of seven Asia-Pacific countries carried out by YouGov, a U.K.-based international market research firm, named Arsenal as the third most followed club in Hong Kong and Singapore and the fourth in Australia. However, it did not make the top five in China, Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand.

In Vietnam -- not included in the survey -- Duc Trong Than, a writer for the country's largest online newspaper, Zing News, names the Gunners as the second most popular European club behind Manchester United.

"When Vietnamese television started broadcasting football 20 years ago, Arsenal was shown often and they played fast and beautiful football," said Trong Than, adding that Vietnamese fans do not change allegiance easily. "Fans here will always love them as long as they keep their stars and Arsene Wenger."

Arsenal's global profile is helped by the presence in the team of world famous players such as Mesut Ozil, a well-known German footballer, who has more than 12 million followers on Twitter. Signing good Asian players can help even more, though it is sometimes more easily said than done.

Manchester United quickly became the most popular team in South Korea after recruiting Park Ji-sung in 2005. More than 1 million Koreans were reported to have signed up for official Manchester United credit cards. Park stayed for seven seasons and won four EPL titles.

However, Arsenal's forays into the playing market have been less successful. Japanese star Junichi Inamoto signed in 2001, but did not make a single league appearance. More recently, his compatriot Ryo Miyaichi and South Korea's Park Chu-young played one league game each.

Earlier this summer, Arsenal signed Japan's Takuma Asano. The 21-year-old was refused a work permit in August, and is set to spend three years playing in Germany before being eligible to return to London. "If Asano is a success, he will certainly drive further Arsenal's popularity in Asia," said Lowen. "[But] That is not the reason the club has signed him -- he's been brought to the club because Wenger clearly recognizes his potential."

Arsenal faces another major problem in Asia, however. The club has not won an EPL title since 2004, and has never won the European club championship, currently known as the European Champions League. Manchester United and Chelsea -- another London-based club -- have each managed both in the last eight years.

Gonnella admits that winning the EPL is the club's main goal, but argues that Arsenal has its own special identity for fans to connect with. "We have a very strong story to tell. This is based on our traditions, our style of play, our commitment to giving young players a chance ... and of course the fact we run the club in a successful, self-sustaining way."

Yet with Manchester United and Chelsea enjoying more recent success and Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid winning titles at home and overseas, it may become more difficult for Arsenal to compete off the field with teams that are more successful on it.

"For all of its dynamic work in building the Arsenal brand across social media, through tours and commercial partnerships in Asia, the reality is that fans want success," Lowen said.

"The risk for Arsenal is that the longer they continue to fail in their quest for another premier [league] title or first champions league title, the more chance there is that fans will get fed up supporting them over other clubs that more frequently win the major trophies."

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