Chasing the Asian Century dream: What role can sport play?

It’s less than two years until the launch of the AFC Asian Cup, to be held across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT from January 9-31, 2015.

Held every four years, the pinnacle event in Asian soccer – and the region’s equivalent to the UEFA European (Euro) Football Championship – gives Australia as first-time host a number of unprecedented commercial, cultural, social and economic opportunities as a flow-on effect from the 32-game schedule.

According to the Asian Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC) CEO, Michael Brown, the Asian Cup “presents an outstanding opportunity for Australia to strengthen our cultural, social and economic ties with Asia, including some of our most important trading partners.”

“The federal government’s Asian Century White Paper acknowledged the power of sport to bridge language and cultural barriers and serve as a platform to build relationships. It confirms that events like the Asian Cup offer opportunities for Australia to build on our international reputation for delivering major sporting events, and to promote Australian tourism, trade and other interests in Asia.”

Of course, the ability to commercially leverage the Asian Cup requires the delivery of a successful event measured across a number of key criteria, including getting bums on seats.

The challenge? Whilst Australia’s national soccer team, the Socceroos – one of the most popular brands in Australian sport – are sure to sell out their matches, how do you convince the general public and commercial stakeholders to attend and embrace matches between the likes of Bahrain and Kuwait, or Oman and Syria?

Engage the soccer fraternity

Obviously, engaging the soccer fraternity is vital. This includes working with professional and amateur clubs and governing bodies.

The organising committee must first leverage the huge grassroots following soccer enjoys as the biggest participation team sport in Australia, with over 450,000 registered players. Working with stakeholders, the organising committee must use this “ready to go” market, which gives soccer a big advantage over other professional sporting codes in Australia.

In terms of messaging, a single, unified message should be adhered to which speaks to the passion of these soccer lovers and communicates the lasting legacy the Asian Cup is sure to bring to football in Australia in terms of player development, infrastructure, education, sponsorship and funding.

This message should be built on the excitement and euphoria of this momentous event, and the chance to cement our status as a country able to pull off a successful, globally viewed soccer event, particularly in the face of failing to land the 2018 or 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The tournament needs to be sold to fans as a way for Australia to:

  • compete with the best teams in Asia;
  • increase our status within Asia and on a global scale; and
  • improve the standard of the local game.

The final ‘hook’ for soccer followers is to reward them as avid participators from the very beginning, with a relevant pricing and ticketing structure specific for the soccer fraternity as a consideration – which will be discussed further on in this piece.

Engage non-football followers

The more difficult task is to make the hard sell to the general public and commercial market who are either non-football followers or participators (i.e. those who do not follow, support or have a commercial involvement in soccer but rather are involved with other sports codes) or those who do not have an interest or involvement in any sport at all.

The key here is to appeal to those who are interested in the ‘entertainment’ value of the Asian Cup tournament, those who would go along for the spectacle or to be part of a major event, rather than simply to watch the results on the pitch.

There have been a number of examples where this approach has been used locally to positive effect. For example, during Australia’s hosting of the IRB Rugby World Cup 2003, a couple of matches were held in my hometown of Wollongong in NSW – a regional area traditionally considered a rugby league and soccer heartland. However, during the tournament, I attended a match between Canada and Tonga at WIN Stadium, if for no other reason, than simply to say “I was there”.

Similarly, many found themselves purchasing (or at least applying for) tickets via a general lottery for the 2000 Sydney Olympics Games – without even knowing (or caring!) what event they would be attending.

And this is not only limited to sport, with many people often keen to attend well-publicised cultural events they may know little about.

A few years ago I wrote a paper for the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where I coined the term “share of leisure time and wallet” with reference to winning the consumer in the sports and entertainment marketplace.

What I was referring to was the fact that everyone – whether it be individuals, couples, families or seniors – dedicates a certain amount of time AND money to spend on leisure activities as a sub-segment of their “disposable income” (i.e. what is left over after all their expenses are covered).

Similarly people have a limited amount of time, when you discount work and other commitments, which they can dedicate to leisure activities.

It is from this that the individual (or group) decides what they will spend their leisure time and money on, whether it is going to the movies, a show or a sporting event.

The key then, is to sell the Asian Cup to non-soccer or sports followers as a once in a lifetime event, a chance for people to say they want to be there to experience the spectacle of the tournament.

From a commercial perspective, Football Federation Australia (FFA) chairman Frank Lowy put it best when he recently said: “It’s often hard for people who don’t love football to understand the magnitude of the game across the world.”

He went on to say that the Asian Cup would reach a TV audience of 2.5 billion people, in a region that is home to 80 million people who played the game, a number that would jump to 380 million by 2022.

Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson also commented:

“Football is big business, and it’s a driver of business the world over. It’s also a potent vehicle for world diplomacy. Asia’s rise will continue… By 2025 the region would be home to four of the world’s largest 10 economies. The Asian Cup is an enormous opportunity to promote Australia’s brand.”

This is where the opportunity lies to sell the Asian Cup to a commercial market, which traditionally does not follow or participate in football or sports, based not on the action on the field, but the benefits off it.

In my next blog, I will look at the marketing strategies that could be used to ensure the success of the Asian Cup tournament in Australia.

Nic Ferraro is the founder and managing director of the Sports Business Insider website – the leading, independent online source of news, analysis, opinion and information on events on the business side of sport.

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