Paying fans pushed to margins by global digital revolution

The Weekend Dossier: The chase is on to attract and bleed dry foreign supporters

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The Independent Football

The Premier League is back this weekend and fans will be logging on in Laos, tweeting from Tennessee, and downloading in Durban. There will also be half a million people actually going to matches in England, but increasingly they are just there to provide atmosphere for the masses in Malaysia, Melbourne and Moscow.

The 39th Game concept may have been stillborn but the Premier League is nevertheless taking its product around the world – instead of delivering it physically it is doing so via the internet. "Manchester City is now a digital-first brand," said Russell Stopford, the club's head of digital earlier this year. "In our 10-year plan, digital media is at the forefront of what we do," said Ian Ayre, Liverpool's managing director at this month's Leaders in Football Conference. Jerry Newman, head of digital and customer relationship management at Chelsea, said: "Developing platforms to allow closer engagement with Chelsea fans all over the world is at the forefront of our strategy."

What does this marketing speak mean in reality? Newman's comments came in February when Chelsea launched a new app with Samsung aimed at south-east Asia, which is increasingly regarded as the most fertile region for growth. Liverpool appear to be specifically targeting Indonesia (population 242 million, free-to-air Premier League football and deep disenchantment with the domestic game). They will tour the archipelago next year, recently struck a deal with Garuda Indonesia to become their "global official airline" and marked Indonesia's National Day with a message on their website. This may be paying off: the Stevie G Hotel, an enterprise independent of the club, recently opened in Bandung. Arsenal have 1.9 million Twitter followers, a figure beaten only by Barcelona, Real Madrid and the LA Lakers, while Premier League clubs combined have 67 million Facebook friends.

This web-based colonisation of the sporting world is driven, like so much else in modern football, by the desire to increase revenue streams. The domestic market is reaching the point of diminishing returns. Clubs are encountering resistance to increasing ticket prices and UK broadcasters may soon experience similar opposition to rising subscriptions. And there are only so many coffee mugs, duvet covers and club TV subscriptions that a person can afford. The chase is on to attract and bleed dry foreign supporters to finance the Anfield rebuild, provide Mario Balotelli's wages, pay off the Glazer family's debt and bolster Roberto Di Matteo's transfer pot.

Liverpool's decision to rebuild Anfield, rather than construct a new stadium, was particularly revealing. "A long-term myth has existed about the financial impact of a new stadium," said owner John Henry in the summer, adding, "‑Our future is based not on a stadium issue but on building a strong football club … principally driven financially by our commercial strengths globally."

He may well be right. Unlike Arsenal, who could add 24,000 seats priced at premium rates, convert Highbury into expensive flats, and attract a lucrative conference market to the Emirates, Liverpool are based in an economically depressed area and needed only 15,000 seats to reach 60,000 capacity. Even the £154m cost of redeveloping Anfield will take a dozen years to claw back based on current season-ticket prices of £725-£802 and assuming interest charges roughly balance ticket inflation.

Instead Liverpool are looking abroad, with the possibilities already shown by Manchester United who, under the Glazers, have hugely increased commercial revenue. The global trawl for sponsorship this week reeled in a telecoms company and a Japanese soft drinks producer. Global blue-chip sponsors include Nike, Hublot, Chevrolet, DHL, AON, Epson and Thomas Cook. Compare that to Reading, who have Waitrose on their shirts and a string of local companies as support sponsors including a bicycle shop, a chartered surveyors, a chicken outlet and a plumber.

While Reading's website, like most, is available only in English, click on to www.manutd.com and there are options to go to specialised sites in French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The site attracts more than 60 million page views per month and is approaching 28 million Facebook likes. The club have mobile phone partners in more than 40 countries while MUTV is broadcast in more than 50.

But what about United's core product, the matches? They attract (according to information from Futures Data quoted by the club) an "average live cumulative audience reach of 49 million per game".

This vast audience is not, however, paying United directly to watch those matches live. The club, like every other in the Premier League, receives a twentieth of the overseas broadcast rights. While that figure has risen exponentially in the last few years, there is no doubt that the marquee clubs could earn far more selling direct access to matches via their own websites or a mobile phone partner. Liverpool's Ayre has already offered a shot across the bows by remarking, last year, "If you are a Bolton Wanderers fan in Bolton you subscribe to Sky because you want to watch Bolton – everyone gets that. But if you are in Kuala Lumpur there isn't really anyone subscribing to Astro or ESPN to watch Bolton. The large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Is it right that international rights are shared equally between all 20 clubs?"

He was howled down and, with 14 clubs required to vote for such a material reform, change is not imminent, but the pressure will grow. The old line from the former Tottenham manager Keith Burkinshaw, uttered as he left White Hart Lane in 1984, that "there used to be a football club over there", has never seemed more apt.

Five Asides

1. As long as the seats are sold, the price will stay high

The BBC's report on the cost of football, for all its anomalies, highlighted the continuing rise in ticket prices, most of which are fed directly into players' salaries. Wage-restraint measures are long overdue, but while fans are prepared to pay these prices (and seat occupancy in the Premier League has been above 90 per cent for years) clubs will charge them.

2. Meet Tommy Guthrie, the newest Fulham star

While going to football is becoming ridiculously expensive, many clubs are at least now treating fans with respect. Winners of a new award (jointly sponsored by the Premier League and tourism body VisitEngland) for "customer care" are Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Fulham's new star, customer liaison officer Tommy Guthrie. If you want to congratulate him personally today he'll be in a pub near Craven Cottage with Fulham's Dutch Supporters' Club. If he gets that on expenses it sounds a job worth having but Guthrie also does grittier tasks, such as organising fans' forums in motorway service stations.

3. Fingers crossed for fan ownership at Pompey

Good luck to the Portsmouth Supporters' Trust in its bid to buy the club, which now appears feasible. Every club has passionate fans, but Pompey do seem to have a bigger hardcore than most. Credit also to Supporters Direct for its work with PST.

4. Football has no chance in BBC beauty pageant

Swimmer Steve Parry pointed out yesterday on BBC's Breakfast Time that there were so many contenders for Sports Personality of the Year that footballers had not been mentioned. Five winners in 57 years emphasises how poorly the national sport, very much a team game, does in this overhyped beauty parade, but even so the contenders are few, given that only Britons are eligible. Parry noted Chelsea's Champions League success, but strip away the foreigners and the choice is John Terry, Ashley Cole, Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill and Frank Lampard. Terry and Cole will not win any popularity contest outside Stamford Bridge while Bertrand and Cahill are not widely known outside football. Which leaves Lampard. He has had a good year, but it is a safe bet he will be overlooked at SPOTY.

5. Cameroon's loss is Cape Verde islanders' gain

Result of the week? Northern Ireland's point in Porto, Bolivia's 4-1 win over Uruguay and Sweden's comeback in Berlin were the pick of the World Cup qualifiers but Cape Verde's two-leg defeat of Cameroon, knocking the (once) Indomitable Lions out of the African Nations Cup takes the honour, despite sadness at Cameroon's decline.

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