Commercial tours: Sunshine, facilities ... and cash
Even Arsenal and Wenger have fallen for the long-haul lure of an Asian summer jolly, seeking to grow fan bases in a fat market
Sunday 03 July 2011
The Premier League may not (yet) have their 39th game – the controversial proposal to play one full set of matches abroad each season – but over the next five weeks the gospel is nevertheless being spread far and wide.
In that period, clubs will be playing more than 40 games on five continents, balancing the sometimes contradictory needs of managers and commercial directors. The former group want to prepare their players for the new season, using good facilities; the latter want to sell shirts and increase what they would probably call "brand awareness". This year, the places to sell that brand are the United States and Asia.
Both Manchester clubs are heading to North America, but it is significant that Chelsea and Arsenal, the other two members of last season's top four, are going to Asia, where Barclays will host their biennial four-team tournament. Arsenal's trip to Malaysia and China is clearly commercially driven – after years of holding out, their manager, Arsène Wenger, has agreed to go. His preference has always been for a training camp in Austria and a couple of gentle matches against local sides, followed by the Emirates Cup at home and a warm-up or two away to stronger European opposition.
Now, however, Wenger says: "For a long time I resisted, but as the Premier League becomes more and more a world league, it's important we develop our fan-base as well. China is a massive country where football is developing and the Premier League is a world brand. You do not want to miss out in a country where you have so many potential fans." The new reality is emphasised by the club's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, who says: 'It's an important step. We enjoy huge support in Asia and this will help bring the club closer to our fans in both countries. We want to develop partnerships with major corporations out there."
Chelsea have usually favoured the US, Jose Mourinho being a fan of the facilities and climate, but Andre Villas-Boas's first game against Premier League opposition will be in Hong Kong on 30 July, against Aston Villa or Blackburn in the Barclays Asia Trophy. Chelsea are returning for the first time since winning the first such competition, in 2003, when Roman Abramovich had just taken over and was signing players throughout the tournament. "It's important for the club to expand its brand in the Asian market," Villas-Boas said.
Villa have been to Hong Kong for a sevens tournament and their head of marketing, Russell Jones, knows the potential: "We are taking part because it is a prestigious tournament which has been hugely successful in the past. But we are also looking to extend our reach beyond these shores. The digital era has enabled the club to interact and build relationships with a global fanbase, and Hong Kong is among the world's leaders when it comes to technology. It is a market with a strong allegiance to the Premier League and a highly technologically savvy population, serving as a fantastic gateway into wider Asia."
North America has long been a popular destination, not least because commercial and footballing interests coexist. There is an enthusiasm for the English game as well as excellent training facilities in a suitable climate. Last summer six Premier League clubs went there. This time the Manchester clubs and Bolton return, joined by Everton, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion. Albion's assistant sporting and technical director, Andy Marriott, says: "It's important that Roy [Hodgson] and the players have top-notch facilities to work at and the ones we've acquired are second to none. They were built for use by the teams who competed at the 1994 World Cup finals and have since been utilised by Premier League clubs and other international sides."
Albion will be based near Santa Barbara in California for nine days and in Portland, Oregon for three days, playing three friendlies. "The Major League Soccer teams we will be facing are good sides who will be in the middle of their season when we play them," Marriott said. "They promise to be competitive games against teams who play a British style of football."
Whether or not many new Baggies fans are to be found wandering around in the famous navy and white stripes, football considerations appear to take priority. Newcastle hope to shift some stripes of a darker hue in Kansas City, Columbus and Orlando. Manchester's two powerhouses, although they will not play each other – that pleasure is deferred until the Community Shield at Wembley on 7 August – compete under the banner of the Herbalife Challenge, a loose structure involving Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona (who will meet United in a low-key repeat of the Champions' League final).
Last year Everton, like Blackburn, made the trek to Australia, but David Moyes is another US enthusiast. Tottenham are the only club heading for South Africa, where they have an academy and charitable interests, while Sunderland will go to Germany. Stoke will spend six days at altitude in Irdning, Austria, where England prepared for the World Cup last summer, but will play no matches. Apart from training in Ireland, Wolves are staying at home, with visits to lower-division teams and Celtic and then a friendly at home to Spanish opposition. Of the newcomers, Queens Park Rangers will go to Italy and Swansea will announce a destination this week. For Norwich, visits to Crystal Palace and Coventry are as exotic as it gets.
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