Just days before the final of the AFC Asian Cup 2019, taking place in the United Arab Emirates, KPMG’s Football Benchmark team takes a look at the tournament to see what it reveals about major trends in the development of football in Asia.
Eight venues in four towns, small crowds
Eight stadia in the Emirates were chosen to host the tournament, when the AFC decided to follow the move by UEFA Euro 2016, and increase the number of teams from 16 to 24. Six of the stadia have been expanded, while the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai also needed renovation for the Cup. The 24,000 seat Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, home to Al Ain FC, was the exception – completed in 2014, it is one of the most modern sporting venues in the Middle East. In addition, the development around the stadium now includes restaurants, retail shops, residences and a hotel, making it a cutting-edge example of how football can integrate entertainment and leisure features.
The largest of the eight stadia, with a capacity of 45,000, is Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, hosting the opening match and the final as well. The smallest one, in Sharjah, can seat 11,000 fans. Nevertheless, capacity has not been an issue, as attendance has been rather low so far throughout the Cup, with around 11,000 people per match on average, despite inexpensive ticketing – the most expensive ticket to the final is EUR 72. Low crowds have always been a concern in the history of the AFC Asian Cup, mainly due to the relatively lower interest in local football across the continent and the higher costs there of travel.
Geopolitics makes its mark
Politics far and near has also affected the tournament. The fact that countries like Syria or Yemen (having qualified for the first time to the Cup) made their way to the tournament, is a significant achievement in itself. Neighboring Qatar have missed their supporters at matches, as in 2017, the UAE cut diplomatic ties with the country, making travel to the tournament difficult for Qatari fans. The situation is the same for the North Korea team, whose fans are also unable to attend, as the UAE has not issued new visas to North Koreans since 2017, due to the lack of diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and the Emirates. Predictably, the North Korea-Qatar game was attended by only 452 visitors. It came as no surprise either, that Yemen, North Korea and Syria finished last in their respective groups, and fell out early, however Qatar made it to the final without losing a point, with an impressive 16-0 goal difference.
Media and Sponsors
According to the organizers, the Asian Cup is broadcasted live by around 80 TV channels around the globe, with 800 million people expected to watch the tournament. Regarding presence on social media, the official page of the AFC Asian Cup claims 1 million likes on Facebook, 1.8 million on the Chinese platform Weibo, 215k on Instagram and 160k on Twitter – numbers which are still lower than those of other similar continental championships.
The Asian Cup now has seven Official Sponsors and eight Official Supporters. Emirates has been a sponsor of the AFC since 2002, and has sponsorship rights to all its tournaments. Car manufacturer Toyota and financial service company Credit Saison, along with telecommunications operator KDDI, are the three Japanese companies to sponsor the event. Financial company UAE Exchange and the global network of sports channels “beIN Sports” are new entries, while tire manufacturer Continental is the only non-Asian sponsor.
You do not see main sponsors from China, nor could you at the former Asian Cup in Australia in 2015. This may come as a surprise, knowing that seven out of 19 sponsors of last year’s World Cup were from China, including real estate and leisure giant Wanda, dairy firm Mengniu, electronics producer Hisense or smartphone developer Vivo. The likely reason is that China aims bigger, to become a global player, in line with their goal to host a FIFA World Cup within the next 15 years, and President Xi Jinping’s vision of China becoming a football superpower by 2050.
A vast market with huge potentials, but underperforming on pitch
A recent industry report revealed that in the UAE, 80% of the population expressed interest in football, followed by Thailand (78%) – proportions far above such traditional football nations like the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Italy or Brazil. In addition, young generations are showing more interest in the game than their parents: even in China and India, where the popularity of football is lower. Regarding such huge populations, this means hundreds of millions of football fans – more than the five top-league European football nations have combined. As the level of local leagues and championships is still relatively weak, fans often turn to support top European clubs – Manchester United alone boast over 300 million supporters in Asia combined.
The growing local interest for the game encourages major European clubs to make the most of this huge market, through local sponsorships, commercial investments or social media expansion. Buying an Asian talent can also add millions of fans: while Asian players may be less valuable than South-American or African stars, the likes of Son Heung-Min, Kagawa or Okazaki may bring millions of supporters to a club’s fan base.
Indeed, Asia exports talents to major European leagues – here the top 10 according to their market value (some of them are not playing at the current tournament, as indicated). (Although Australia geographically is not part of Asia, it is a member of the AFC since 2007).
On the other hand, local stakeholders also aim to benefit from growing local interest. They finance bringing big names to Asia (such as Iniesta, Fernando Torres in Japan, Oscar, Hulk and Mascherano in China, or Xavi in Qatar) to help quality improve and attendance grow. They are investing in broadcasting and sponsorship deals and in developing the infrastructure, as well. The Indian Super League is a notable example on how to raise interest in local leagues.
Yet, the challenges are big and manifold for clubs, leagues and investors as well: diverse operating models throughout the continent, competition from European leagues and other popular sports locally (cricket in India or baseball in Japan,) and regulations limiting the number of foreign players that clubs can field, are among the hurdles.
“The Asian continent has a hunger for top quality football,” says Andrea Sartori, KPMG’s Global Head of Sports, and leader of the Football Benchmark team. “It also has vast and dense populations and fast growing economies. All of these factors bear extraordinary potential for the game, and thus real prospects to generate big business regarding media rights, sponsorships and social media opportunities in Asia. Nevertheless, the question of when Asian football will be able to challenge the game’s traditional superpowers on the pitch as well, still remains.”