by Michael O'Neill
October 12th, 2012

Not long after the curtain fell on the 2011-12 English Premiership season, Weber Shandwick was charged with managing a piece of research in eight markets across Asia for a large football club.

There are maybe only two or three global football clubs (at the most) which can approach Asia’s markets with its own commissioned research, and this was the biggest: Manchester United.

As it turned out, the research, found its fan base had swelled to 659 million — almost a tenth of the world’s population. A similar survey in 2007 indicated that United had 333 million fans, based on 27,000 responses. The latest survey interviewed 54,000 people in 39 countries.

One interesting finding within these very large numbers was the fact that almost half of United’s fans — 325 million of the 659 million — now reside in Asia, particularly in emerging markets such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. That is twice as many fans as Barcelona has in the region.

The media campaign to support the research — across eight Asia Pacific markets — ran strongest in Indonesia, India and Vietnam with Thailand and Malaysia not far behind. In total, almost 300 media stories resulted from the distribution.

Despite the highly positive sentiment, United’s days as the kings of away fans could now face a genuine threat from other clubs hungry to tap into Southeast Asia’s growth markets. One such club is its city rival Manchester City, whose ambitions in Asia have so far  been restricted to the partnership with MLJ, Inc, which will see the development of its official Japanese mobile website. The partnership with MLJ will give the company exclusive rights to develop City’s official Japanese mobile website for handheld devices until May 2013. Japanese fans will be able to get daily news blasts, downloadable team photography and access to official merchandise and match day tickets.

Manchester City’s brand has doubled in two years, according to Brand Finance Football, which places it in the top 10 of the brand valuation consultancy’s rankings, up from 11th to eighth, with $302 million. In top spot sits United, valued at US$853million, off the back of strong revenues from broadcast rights, gate receipts and merchandise, on top of its unrivalled global appeal.

News that DFL Sports Enterprises, marketers of the German Bundesliga, has recently opened an office in Singapore, shows Europe’s big clubs have learned from United’s ventures and are keen to explore growth markets in Southeast Asia.

As more of them emerge, power may shift away from the Red Devils, but at the moment everyone seems to be chasing their tails in Asia, much like the English clubs used to at home.

Michael O’Neill is digital managing editor, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

To receive our updates: