How Arsenal, La Liga are maintaining connection with their fan bases in Asia

Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (right) and Sead Kolasinac during their recent English Premier League match against Watford. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley)

SINGAPORE — How can a well-known football club or league maintain their marketing power even as they undergo major upheavals both on and off the pitch?

For English Premier League (EPL) giants Arsenal, it is a matter of sticking with their key objectives as well as traditional values that have served them well in their past successes, according to their managing director Vinai Venkatesham.

The 38-year-old, who replaced Ivan Gazidis in 2018 when he left for Italian side AC Milan, was appointed during a period of momentous changes amid the club – not least of all the departure of long-time manager Arsene Wenger, the key architect of the Gunners’ three EPL titles in his 22-year tenure.

“We realised that, with so many changes, there is bound to be a period of transition for the club in terms of its operations. However, everyone in the club is focused on our eventual objective, which is to win top honours such as the EPL and the Champions League,” Vinai told Yahoo News Singapore on Tuesday (17 September) at the All That Matters sports and entertainment industry conference at the Ritz Carlton Singapore.

“What is really important is that we understand that we exist to serve our fans’ engagement. The larger and the more engaged members you have, the more attractive you are to commercial partners. This will help drive our revenues so that we can invest back in the team and improve the team to become more successful. It’s a ‘virtuous’ circle.”

Arsenal FC managing director Vinai Venkatesham during the All That Matters 2019 sports and entertainment industry conference. (PHOTO: All That Matters)

Maintaining winning culture and values

According to Vinai, Arsenal have made no fewer than 55 personnel changes during the past two years, and have also revamped their club structure, allowing a team of former top Gunners to support current manager Unai Emery.

For instance, Steve Bould is part of the Under-23 team set-up, Freddie Ljungberg is an assistant first-team coach and Edu is the technical director. All three have been key figures in the Gunners’ EPL-winning squads during Wenger’s tenure.

“They know a lot about forming a winning culture, and about the traditional values in our club. So they are a vital link to our heritage,” said Vinai, who joined Arsenal as the head of global partnerships in 2012, after a successful stint as the commercial manager for the 2012 London Olympics.

“At the same time, we must also innovate in our marketing efforts. We are tailoring our digital and social media engagements with our huge Asian fan base, and collaborating with our commercial partners for new events via our numerous regional offices.

“Arsene had given our fans plenty of joy during our period of success, and we are grateful for the goodwill and loyalty that they have shown in our transition period. The most important thing now is to keep them invested in the club, keep their belief in the club, and we can then move together towards success in the future.”

Keeping fans interested in La Liga

Getting Asian fans to stay invested and interested in an Europe-based club is a challenging task, given the multitude of top football clubs eager to market themselves in Asia as the right team to support.

Getting them to stay interested in a distant football league may be even tougher, with so many leagues around the world fighting for broadcast and digital exposure to widen their appeal.

The Spanish La Liga had enjoyed a successful past decade, buoyed by the presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – widely regarded as the two best players in the world – as well as the sustained brilliance of the Spanish national team.

However, with Ronaldo having left the league to join Italian giants Juventus, Messi nearing the end of his career, and Spain no longer the all-conquering side of the early 2010s, how is La Liga dealing with the challenge of maintaining fan interest in Asia?

Its president Javier Tebas, who also attended the All That Matters conference, believes it is a matter of customising its products for higher exposure to the Asian audience.

Spanish La Liga president Javier Tebas. (PHOTO: Spanish La Liga/All That Matters)

The 57-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore, “We have convinced our clubs that staggering our kick-off times is the way to widen our exposure to our global audience.

“So on every match weekend, we have matches that begin earlier in the day so as to reach the prime-time Asian audience. And matches are played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays so that fans can watch more games over a single weekend.”

Influx of Asian footballers

Tebas is also excited by an influx of Asian footballers into La Liga. With top players such as Japan’s Shinji Kagawa (Real Zaragoza) and Takefusa Kubo (RCD Mallorca), China’s Wu Lei (Espanyol), and South Korea’s Lee Kang-in (Valencia) plying their trade in Spain, Tebas hopes to build a strong bond between the players’ clubs and their countries of origin.

“We are working with TV networks of the players’ respective countries to broadcast more of their clubs’ matches,” he said. “We also encourage the clubs to hold friendlies in those countries, so that fans can show their support to the players and their clubs.”

Ultimately, La Liga hopes to continue making inroads in Asia via its expansive presence of four regional offices and 13 country delegates.

“We are glad that Asian fans nowadays are supporting more La Liga clubs – beyond Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid,” he said.

“But our work is never done. We have to stay humble and dedicated, and continue to engage our Asian fan base to make them feel appreciated. Even though we have our language differences, we want to show that, on the pitch, everyone can enjoy great football in La Liga.”

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