Playing in a sauna delivers healthy dividends

United and Arsenal profit in Asia as City try to 'break' America

By Tim Rich
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:23

Last year a market research company asked the young and wealthy of China what they made of certain Premier League clubs.

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The most common adjectives associated with Manchester United were "successful" and "aggressive". Arsenal were "young" and "sexy". Chelsea were characterised as "wealthy" and "superficial" while Liverpool were "honest" and "reliable". No one asked about Manchester City.

This week "successful and aggressive", "young and sexy", "wealthy and superficial" and "honest and reliable" will be in the far corners of the planet, earning money, pressing the flesh, building the brand. Since three of them will be playing in Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Jalil Stadium, where night temperatures hover around 30 degrees and humidity levels range from 80 to 90 per cent, it is not about preparing for a long English winter.

However, this is a dog that is being wagged by a very long and powerful tail. When Gavin Laws, the head of Liverpool's sponsors, Standard Chartered, said that it might help if the club signed some Asian players, his statement was met with ridicule.

And yet Sir Alex Ferguson's signing of Park Ji-sung from PSV Eindhoven for a modest £4m is one of the reasons 1.2million Koreans hold a Manchester United credit card. When Laws defended Standard Chartered's $132m deal with Liverpool, he said that the first instalment of $33m had already been recouped in "advertising value" in Asia.

Asia and the United States are the two great prizes of football touring. The players prefer America. They are not mobbed when they set foot outside their hotel room, they can have a beer in familiar surroundings and do not have to play in a sauna.

The financiers prefer Asia. The audiences are more pliable. Once, after an excruciating goalless draw between Bayern Munich and Manchester United at Chicago's Soldier Field, both teams were booed off. That would never happen in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Yesterday Charlie Adam, Liverpool's newest signing, was screamed at like a Harry Potter star in Leicester Square as he made a hand print in a shopping centre in Guangzhou.

However, there are rules to obey. You should not, as Real Madrid did on their 2005 world tour, demand that whole shopping centres are closed to enable galacticos to choose Rolexes in peace. You should not – as Rio Ferdinand once did in Tokyo – stick two fingers up at your fans.

The US is the hardest market. A couple of years ago David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive, conceded that America may be beyond even Old Trafford's reach and yet, for the second successive summer, United will be ploughing into America's interior.

This, however, is the kind of doggedness that David Bowie and the Rolling Stones demonstrated when they "broke" America with endless shows in nameless towns. The advice to British artists was to stick to the eastern and western seaboards, where they were less likely to ask who you were. This, in effect, is the strategy Manchester City have adopted. Last year they spent plenty of time in New York; this summer it will be California.

There is much good work mixed in with the money making. This morning in Guangzhou, Ian Rush will coach partially-sighted children. At Manchester United, Dimitar Berbatov has regularly given his time to Unicef. Three years ago in South Africa a United footballer led a campaign against sexual promiscuity, Brothers for Life. However, Ryan Giggs is unlikely to be asked back.

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