28 February 2010
Podcast: Michael Jennings and I talk about the English Premier League in Asia

In this podcast we find out:

  • that the Premier League is a big deal in Asia
  • that it’s really big
  • how it got that big
  • why the 39th game is going to happen
  • and how it might be done fairly

On a technical note, this was another Skype recording. To me it sounds as if we are in the same room rather than at opposite ends of the internet.

Oh, and apologies for the rather abrupt ending.

This podcast was recorded on Friday, 12 February 2010.

Update Michael sends a picture of a Hawker centre (with Premier League game in progress?)


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  1. Indeed. This was the precise event I am talking about at the start of the talk. I had just arrived in Singapore. Saturday night. I was on the way to my hotel. Football in progress.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on 01 March 2010 at 04:31am

  2. I think some of the claims here are exaggerated and/or somewhat pulled out of context - demand being higher in Asia than it is in England itself is almost certainly down to the disparity in raw aggregate numbers alone and the skew toward the Arsenals and Man Uniteds. Any match involving one or two of the big four might be able to fill a large stadium in say, Shanghai for a one-off game - but I doubt that such a stadium could be filled for a match between two smaller teams like Blackburn Rovers against Stoke City.

    I also think that the average fan is very much more aware of the nature of the finance side of football clubs than either of you seem prepared to consider. It is for example, a regular topic on supporters discussion forums many of whom work in the City - and not just Arsenal fans.

    One thing that Michael neglected to mention was the inter-European competitions. A lot of money comes into the Premier League from the Champions League (formerly the European Cup) and the recent proposal for restructuring the Premier League in order to allow a play-off for the final Champions League spot reflects this. But while the Champions League is big bucks, the Europa League (formerly the UEFA cup) isn’t quite in the same league, so to speak. I suspect there has long been an interest in shifting the time of the Europa League (formerly UEFA cup) matches to the afternoon so as to tap the Asian market a la the English Premier League. However, whether Platini (the French head of UEFA) will allow that seems doubtful given the previous stances he has taken. If the 39th game proposal is ever to get off the ground, it is much more that commie Platini at UEFA and that stupid, fat, bribe-swallowing Jabber Sepp Blatter at FIFA that will have to be got around - not the ordinary fan on the street. Attendances at many grounds in the Premier League dropped considerably during the financial crisis in 2009, so a lot of fans might actually be less bothered by their team playing the odd match abroad than you might think - especially if they can just stream it over an internet connection.

    Another sideline question is what, if any at all, impact internet streaming of matches - in particular via the P2P networks - will have on both the domestic and worldwide revenue streams of English clubs. 

    Major League Baseball in the States also attracts a considerable following in Asia too - certainly among the baseball playing nations Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Interestingly in Taiwan, there is a huge personality cult around a Taiwanese pitcher who, until recently, played for the New York Yankees. This is mixed up with the nationalist, independence movement in the south of the island who view him, because he is a southerner from Tainan, as a Taiwanese hero who has “made Taiwan famous around the world”. Nothing to do with Taiwan’s export led economy of the last forty years or so. When I first arrived here, this just absolutely floored me.

    This has been a bit of an inarticulate rant, but a final thought: I don’t know for sure, but it seems an obvious conjecture that the Spanish Primera Ligue has a similarly extremely large following in South and Central America due to the dominance of the Spanish language, so I don’t think the English Premier League is quite alone in being the “sporting choice of the world”.

    Anyway, I have to say that there was very little that Michael said which surprised me.

    Posted by mike on 03 March 2010 at 11:31pm

  3. But a good podcast nonetheless.

    Posted by mike on 03 March 2010 at 11:34pm

  4. Lots of points to address, there. Basically, no, I don’t think I am exaggerating the scale of this.

    In Australia, we have an expression that is used in describing sporting crowds, which is a “theatregoer”. A theatregoer is someone who is less interested in seeing a particular club as in seeing a good game and enjoying the occasion. This comes from a sporting culture in which there will be half a dozen or more clubs based in the same city; a number of games being played in the same city each weekend; and in which the stadiums are large and owned by the state or city rather than the clubs and in which the league rather than the club will decide where a club’s “home” games are played.

    All this means that it is usually possible to buy a ticket at the gate for sporting events in Australia. With all this in place, the number of such theatregoers at many games is surprisingly large. In England it is small, but a good portion of this may come from the difficulty of getting tickets unless you are a season ticket holder.

    My experience of watching games in Asia is that many people do appear to be theatregoers in this sense, and the spectacle of a Premier League game for points may well be enough to get them to go to a game once a season, even between relatively low ranking clubs. Is interest enough to fill large stadiums in ten Asian cities for one game a year at high ticket prices? I tend to think yes, but one can’t really know until it is tried. I do see lots of people watching games in bars and restaurants in East and South East Asia, even when it is two of the smaller clubs playing.

    With respect to local fans in the UK being aware of this stuff, that is probably true for the more sophisticated fans to an extent. On the other hand, the general media has no idea. In particular the sports pages of the London newspapers reported the plans for the 39th game with an extraordinary level of cluelessness. Similarly, in random conversations with people in pubs in the UK, I don’t see much knowledge of it. Even if you do sort of get it, you don’t realise just how many people in Asia are watching until you go there and see them doing it.

    My experience of South America is that people there are passionate about the game, but fundamentally the interest is in their own clubs and loyalties. For instance, I was in Buenos Aires in April 2008. There was a Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Manchester United. A hugely important game between perhaps the two best sides in Europe. Lionel Messi was playing for Barcelona and Carlos Tevez for Manchester United, meaning that there was local interest for the Argentines. And although the game was on in a few cafes, interest was fairly minimal. When local club games came on, interest was enormous. The next evening, the other semi-final went into extra time, and the local club matches clashed with the extra time. TVs were immediately turned to the local games, and I couldn’t watch the Champions League SF anywhere. Brazil is probably the same. There really isn’t much interest in any of the European leagues in South America, and that includes the Spanish league. I do see the international following of the English league as unique, but it is largely an Asian and African thing that does not stretch far into the Americas.

    You are right that I didn’t get into the details of FIFA/UEFA politics and the fact that Platini and Blatter want to protect their own fiefdoms from each other and anyone else in the game by preventing the growth of other people and organisations within the game to rival them. I didn’t directly, anyway. On the other hand, the restrictions on foreign players in domestic clubs were certainly intended to restrict the power and wealth of the strongest leagues and clubs relative to UEFA. They were struck down as illegal. My hunch is that if there were to be an actual court case in the British or European courts, the courts would almost certainly rule under European competition law that FIFA and UEFA did not have the legal right to stop the Premier League from playing games in Asia. And anyway, it is always about money anyway. The other way might be to give UEFA and FIFA a cut, distasteful as it might be. Or the television moguls decide that they want it to happen, and explain this slowly and carefully to Platini and Blatter. Ultimately they are the ones with the power.

    You are right, though. As for the British fans, regardless of what they will say, they will still watch the matches on TV. Some will come to Kuala Lumpar for the game, and probably discover that they are having a great time when they get there.

    And yes, North East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) is different from SE Asia. Baseball is popular in these countries, but I don’t think it is particularly in China or SE Asia. (Basketball seems to be the American sport with the following in China). And the Japanese and Koreans certainly follow their own leagues to an extent that the countries further south do not. (I am not familiar enough with Taiwan to know what happens there). It seems to me that if local sports and leagues were established and widely followed before the introduction of international satellite television, then the following of English and European soccer is weaker. The question is whether local leagues will grow in these places and the interest in the English clubs then fades. It might. Or it might not. I do not really know.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on 04 March 2010 at 03:48am

  5. Well I would hope good national football leagues will develop in China and elsewhere - the J League in Japan has already been fairly well developed for many years now, but what it has lacked is any inter-Asian rivalry with, for example, good leagues in China, Korea, Malaysia and so on: there has got to be something for all those spare young men to do in China over the coming years…

    The status of football - and sport generally -  in Taiwan is quite abysmal; the national baseball league has just been “rocked” by yet another corruption scandal involving local gangsters inducing top players to throw games. Stadiums in Taiwan are small - typically having a capacity of around 20,000 give or take - and they are almost never filled to capacity. I used to go and watch the Kaohsiung team and there’d be about 3 or 4000 people top - including the opposition fans. There are a few University football teams but nothing even vaguely professional. Which is somewhat curious because you’d imagine people in the south would be desperate to establish a professional league for the world’s most popular sport - given that the south of Taiwan is where you find the strongest calls for Taiwan’s participation in international affairs. Last year for example, the Kaohsiung city government hosted the World Games (a sort of poor man’s Olympic Games which almost nobody watches) - the entire charade was a blatant political stunt designed to tell anyone paying attention (so perhaps two or three Germans reading a paper in Luxembourg…) that Taiwan is not part of China. It has always struck me that the obvious way of reinforcing this point is for the Taiwanese to develop their own professional football league and a corresponding international team - in the world’s most popular sport. It’s blindingly obvious and very frustrating to have to point this out to Taiwanese people who then look at me much like that little boy looked at you when you told him you didn’t support a Premier League team. Inconceivable.

    Historically I trace the blame back to the bean counters in the British Foreign Office who, in 1895, refused to stand up to the Japanese after the first Sino-Japanese war and were content to just hand Formosa over to them. The influence of western culture since then has been almost entirely from the United States - hence the popularity of baseball and basketball and the absence of the world’s sport.

    These two sports - baseball and basketball - are played a lot by Taiwanese kids, but on TV, it’s largely the MLB and NBA that are watched rather than the local teams. Local baseball teams do get on TV but basketball teams don’t - the kids are too busy out playing basketball after school. Every city has its own purpose built basketball courts and baseball fields for the kids with the only football fields being found at the schools and universities - and these get used for anything but football. I have never really understood why every school has a football field despite the fact they are almost never used for football.

    So if ever professional nationwide football leagues were to take off in Asian countries (especially China) I would hope this would happen in Taiwan too, but worry that it simply wouldn’t.

    Posted by mike on 04 March 2010 at 08:58am

  6. I used to think that the FA’s refusal to get involved in FIFA back in the 20s and 30s was a mistake but reading this exchange I’m beginning to think they may have had a point.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 05 March 2010 at 04:51am

  7. Well, if you equate “FIFA” with “The state” it all makes sense.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on 07 March 2010 at 05:41am

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