Asia covets slice of Premiership pie

BBC News





by Gavin Stamp


Business reporter, BBC News


Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's former prime minister, playing football

Will Mr Thaksin be the first of a new breed of Asian football owners?


Anyone who has been on holiday in south-east Asia will recognise the moment.

Your taxi is speeding through the strange surroundings
of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur when the conversation suddenly turns to more
familiar territory.

It is not long before the driver has revealed an
allegiance to English football – often for an unfashionable club or a
long-forgotten player.

It is these kind of exchanges which bring home to you
the passion, bordering on obsession, that there is for the English game
in that part of the world.

Leading the way?

Given this reality, perhaps it is surprising that it has
taken so long for Asian wealth to make itself felt in the Premiership,
particularly at a time when clubs are changing hands as regularly as
match programmes.

Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2002, a host of
English football’s greatest names have fallen into either US, Russian
or – in the case of West Ham – Icelandic hands.

Others, such as Arsenal and Southampton, are currently the subject of transatlantic interest.

But with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
now mulling a “serious” bid for Manchester City, could the geographic
tables be about to turn?

Could we ultimately see a squad of Asian tycoons seeking
to go head to head with the likes of Malcolm Glazer, George Gillett and
Randy Lerner?


A Thai woman poses next to the UEFA Champion's League trophy

European football is a big draw in Asia

“All the ingredients are in place,” says Vinay Bedi, a
football analyst at stockbrokers Wise Speke, of the prospect of
significant Asian investment in the English game.

“The template is in place for doing it. If one
[businessman] leads the way and is successful, then one or two others
would be encouraged to follow.”

As far as football-mad Mr Thaksin is concerned, there is
a strong element of deja vu in his pursuit of one of England’s
best-supported clubs.

Back in 2004 he was widely reported to be interested in investing in Liverpool, but this speculation ultimately came to nothing.

Still, the former policeman’s circumstances have changed significantly since then.

He is no longer in office, having been ousted in a
bloodless coup last year, and is now living somewhat inconspicuously in
London.

He would also appear to have a substantial amount of
money at his disposal after his family controversially sold its
interest in the once state-owned telecoms firm Shin Corp for $1.9bn.

As with all putative buyers of Premiership clubs looking
to establish their credentials, Mr Thaksin has pledged significant
funds for buying new players.

Stake in football

Whether he is successful or not – and there are several
other suitors looking at City – the prospect of a big English club
falling into Asian hands is a lively one.

Indeed, some analysts are surprised it hasn’t happened
already, believing that would-be buyers from Asia have been too
cautious in the past.

“Perhaps they have been more risk averse and slower to
react than US investors, who are savvy and have experience of running
US sports,” says Harry Philp, from Hermes Sports Partners.

“It is more of a first step for many Asian investors –
but you do have the precedent that when the first US deal was done,
people did get a lot more serious.”

What is clear is that Asia’s commercial stake in the
English game – particularly the Premiership – is well-established and
growing in value with every season.

Many of the region’s most successful companies are closely associated with leading sides.


Tony Fernandes, chief executive of Air Asia

Asian firms want to be associated with the English Premiership

Drinks company ThaiBev – best known for its Chang beer –
sponsors Everton, while fast-growing Malaysian airline AirAsia is one
of Manchester United’s many commercial partners.

Korean giant Samsung’s sponsorship with Chelsea is one
of the largest of its kind in the world, reported to be worth about
£50m over five years.

Many Premiership teams to have at least one Asian player
in their squads while pre-season tours to the continent are now
commonplace – Manchester United are among those due to visit the region
this summer.

Countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and Japan
are no longer merely regarded as ready merchandising opportunities for
the big clubs to exploit.

They are a bulwark of the Premiership’s global brand and one of the main catalysts of its enormous commercial success.

The Premiership’s overseas TV contract is worth £625m
over the next three years – double the existing deal – and Asian
markets are among the most lucrative.

Chance of glory

This level of money, added to the £1.7bn domestic TV
contract beginning in August, means it is no surprise that some
entrepreneurs now want to be participants as well as spectators.

Chinese and Indian companies are buying into the UK
economy with a vengeance, and why should the national sport be any
different?


Ji-Sung Park in action for Manchester United

Players like South Korea’s Ji-Sung Park are worshipped back home

The main deterrent to Asian investment may well be the
fear among leading tycoons that they may have missed the boat, as far
as any possibility of glory is concerned.

The last ten major trophies on offer in the English game
have been shared by just four clubs – Chelsea, Manchester United,
Arsenal and Liverpool – and three of these are now effectively
off-limits to takeovers.

“The main difficulty is the supply of clubs is going to
start running out,” says Mr Bedi, who notes that most Championships
clubs with realistic Premiership ambitions are now in play.

“Those which are available and willing to be sold is
increasingly getting less and less. It means that potential investors
will find it harder to get the sort of business they want.”

But the battle for Manchester City and speculation about
other clubs – Reading chairman John Madejski says its next owner could
be Asian – means the dream is unlikely to die.



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