Nov 09, 2021

KNOW THE SCORE: What Does Asian Football Developement Look Like?

KNOW THE SCORE: What Does Asian Football Developement Look Like?

KNOW THE SCORE is a series of talks where Matthew Lentowczyk – CEO and founder of TISA Group – invites interesting guests to talk about the latest trends, challenges and best practices at the intersection of business, sport and technology.

In the sixth issue, Matthew Lentowczyk caught up with Raphael Jordi, Senior Vice President Operations at Football Marketing Asia (FMA) – a Super Sports company – to discuss how Asian football is developing in terms of digital and technological solutions.

Football Marketing Asia [亚洲足球商业开发有限公司] is the exclusive commercial partner of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the rights cycles 2021-2024 and 2025-2028. FMA’s portfolio comprises Asia’s most prestigious national team and club football competitions including but not limited to the AFC Asian Cup, the AFC Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup, the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and the AFC Champions League.

Headquartered in Hong Kong S.A.R, with offices in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China PR, FMA combines unparalleled global football experience with in-depth Asian know-how and expertise.

Raphael Jordi is responsible for what happens at the venues, with his primary responsibility being on operations and the delivery of sponsorship and media partners’ rights.

The exchange of views between Matthew and Raphael on the development of Asian football led us to some interesting conclusions on:

  • What is unique about the Asian football industry?
  • How is FMA contributing to the development of football competitions in Asia?
  • When will Asia become the leading place for the football industry?

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Matthew Lentowczyk: Raphael, as FMA you are covering numerous major competitions in Asian football. What do you do to manage it successfully?

Raphael Jordi: Indeed, we are operating in many places in Asia. Let’s start with the countries where we have offices. Our HQ is in Hong Kong, but we also have our bases in Singapore, Beijing, Beirut and Dubai.

As you can see, we’re very active in the Middle East and Eastern Asia. We’re also running matches in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or India. Overall, there are 47 countries at which we look when operating within FMA. 

This geographic scope certainly is a constant challenge. However, together with the AFC we are committed to further develop Asian football competitions and to introduce innovation in various areas with the objective of generating more value for sponsors and fans. Our teams are laser-focused, and so far, we are more than happy with how things are going.

Matthew Lentowczyk: What technologies, platforms and digital solutions help you in achieving your goals?

Raphael Jordi: Even though we’re operating in the B2B sector of the football industry in Asia, we cover the whole scope of the commercial activities. For instance, our marketing departments use various platforms and technologies to analyse fan behaviour, which helps optimise our partners’ activations across digital channels.

What’s very important for fans is to receive the highest quality of content in a timely fashion. We’ve just launched a new website with the AFC – the-afc.com – where fans will be able to watch the video on demand from the games (such as highlights), read articles, check the statistics and results. We’ve also created an archive in the cloud, where our partners can look for archive footage and retrieve clips of games and notable incidents from this year’s competitions, enabling them to produce and publish the most relevant and exciting content for their audiences.

I also really like what we did with you, TISA. We have built and implemented a platform for managing our operations with our business partners. Much work is required when organising an event: accreditation, ticketing, activations, approvals, site visits, pre- & post-match reporting, LED boards content management, etc.

In the past, you could run these operations with human resources, simple Excel sheets and emailing. Nowadays, however, innovations like virtual advertising require us to handle a considerably larger and more complex workload, making it virtually impossible to manage event operations without a strong solution. Therefore, having a dedicated platform is essential to manage and optimise operations.

Matthew Lentowczyk: One of the things that you mention on your website is that you want to unleash the power of local football in Asia. Asia is a big market; you’re operating in over 40 countries, each of them is different. Do you have checked solutions or processes that help you successfully work in all of these “mini-markets” that together build a giant “Asian football market”?

Raphael Jordi: Yes, definitely! We put much emphasis on our localisation program. 

We all know where globalisation is pushing us – towards the same looking products, services and solutions all around the globe. And there are thousands of advantages coming with it. Still, we need to remember that globalisation is now a lot about localisation, even though it might seem contradictory at first sight.

What I mean here is that when companies want to expand to global markets, they can no longer have the same offer to all the different targeted markets. You need to adjust your solutions to the characteristics of a given group or community you want to engage. 

What can we do to achieve it? Research, customisation, hiring people with local know-how, data gathering & analysis, custom products and solutions. It’s very important to be open to the expertise of people who have been operating in the given markets for a long time. As such, we do put an emphasis on the varying local and regional needs of each one of our partners. Our sponsorship programme has been designed with flexibility in mind, enabling us to respond to our partners’ individual needs. It is no longer a “one size fits all” approach which was prevalent maybe 10-15 years ago. 

Combining economics of scale that come with globalisation with a distinct local focus is the best way to succeed.

Matthew Lentowczyk: Wherever we listen to the experts’ conversations about the Asian football industry, they mention it’s very different from the European one. Would you be able to explain the major differences between Asia and Europe?

Raphael Jordi: It’s a tricky but very interesting question. I was born in Geneva in Switzerland and grew up there. Then, I worked in Europe for the majority of my life until 2017. Therefore, moving to Asia was a discovery for me and I needed to be able to question what I’ve learnt before and reset my beliefs so that I am ready to learn about how things work here. 

When I started operating in Asian markets, the first lesson I learned was that there is no such concept of “Asia” as we may have in Europe. There is no common political or economic framework as we have within the EU. It’s a big mistake that many people often make when they don’t possess knowledge about this continent. We need to realise that Asia is extremely diverse.

In Europe, we often tend to call ourselves “Europeans” and feel very emotionally attached to the continent as a whole. In Asia, it’s more about specific countries, cultures and local communities. That’s essential to understand before doing any business in Asia.

For that reason, actually, my recommendation is to avoid trying to compare these two continents in terms of our industry. Everything is so different in Dubai, Tashkent, Mumbai, Tokyo or Sydney. There are distinctive cultures and business practices that you first need to learn and understand to be successful.

Matthew Lentowczyk: Indeed, that’s a very intriguing point you have just mentioned. Is there anything you would call that is unique within the Asian football industry? A solution, tool, characteristic or trait that is only visible in one of the parts of Asian football but could also be very beneficial in other regions in the world?

Raphael Jordi: What unites the whole football community is passion. We have the same situation in Asia. 

For me, one of the unique characteristics of Asian football communities is their engagement in supporting national teams. They’re very passionate about that, very often much more than in supporting individual clubs or athletes.

Another essential thing is the fan engagement strategies. Each country here is completely different when it comes to digital platforms. In China, we have WeChat or Weibo. In South Korea, there is KakaoTalk, which is another social media platform. Some use Line to communicate while others are still Facebook-focussed.

This is the crucial difference that makes Asia unique – the markets here are so fragmented that you need to find a way to operate in all of these places successfully. 

From the technological and engagement perspective, one of the most fascinating applications is WeChat. You can use it to chat, call and post your stories, but also to pay, book services, transfer money to your friends, buy things in online stores, and so on. This is a unique solution worldwide. Normally, we would have multiple apps for all that. 

If you have such a comprehensive app on the market, which strongly influences all the actions taken, you need to adjust all your operations to it. Copying solutions from other places will be entirely inefficient.

Matthew Lentowczyk: Do you think that Asian football might become the leader of the whole football industry one day? Can it climb to the top of the hierarchy ladder?

Raphael Jordi: I truly believe that Asia is already a leader in the sports industry. However, so far, in a different way than being the best from a sporting point of view. 

If you look at the places where the biggest sports brands organise preparation camps, friendly tournaments and seek new fans, the majority of them will be in Asia. The reason for that lies in the amount of untapped fanbase – football enthusiasts – that live here. 

In my view, Asia as a location is already a leader of actions within the sports industry. So it might be only a matter of time until other fields of the football business catch up and use the potential of Asian communities.

Matthew Lentowczyk: True, it’s an undeniable fact that the most prominent sports brands, especially from Europe, invest heavily in building their Asian fanbases. Still, the question is – do you think it will be beneficial for Asian football? 

It seems to be a complex question. On the one hand, more people might get interested in the discipline and start supporting Asian teams, which would be beneficial. On the other hand, instead of following local competitions, people may decide to turn to other football entertainment opportunities, which would be detrimental. What’s your opinion on that?

Raphael Jordi: In my opinion, the current situation benefits Asia. That’s good that fans see the different types of teams and athletes. The higher the variety, the greater the possibility that new people will get engaged in football as a form of entertainment. It creates the “buzz”!

We need to remember that these brands invest not only to gain new supporters but also to create new partnerships. Many of them have agreements with local football academies and youth teams as well as Asian brands. Helping the grassroots is the most difficult challenge because it requires investment in infrastructure, time and qualifications. The biggest European football clubs are coming to Asia and setting up offices in the region because they want to help local communities and build their brand. That’s a win-win situation!

What’s more, following European football isn’t that easy here because of the time difference. In that sense, live football doesn’t constitute a direct threat to Asian competitions. Let’s just look at the time zones. For example, the UEFA Champions League games take place at 3:00 AM GMT+8 (Honk Kong time) on a workday, so it’s impossible to follow it live for the vast majority of people living in this part of the world.

Summing it up, I think that the actions taken by the biggest sports brands from Europe don’t take fans away from the football competitions in Asia. On the contrary, they generate interest and “hype” around our beloved sport.

Matthew Lentowczyk: Let’s now look at it the other way around. How successful are Asian football competitions in engaging supporters from other continents?

Raphael Jordi: It’s a bit early to say as, at this moment, the competitions are mainly organised to engage local communities. 

We’ve done a lot of work at FMA in ensuring that our competitions are broadcasted beyond Asia with TV rights sold to Europe and North America as well as Africa. So this is a solid step in giving visibility worldwide about Asian football. We can already observe significant traffic coming from mother countries of players competing in Asia. For instance, that’s the case with Al Hilal SFC, the club from Saudi Arabia which has attracted great players from Europe or other parts of Asia. That was the best way to bring the attention of the European audience to their clubs, especially if this translates to success on the pitch.

Matthew Lentowczyk: The last question – if you had this power to decide what entire Asian football development looks like in the near future, what would you do?

Raphael Jordi: There are a few aspects I would like to mention here. 

The first one is the hosting of events. Qatar is organising the World Cup next year, in 2022. China might also be looking for the possibility to organise such an event in the next ten to fifteen years. Thus, they’re definitely heading in the right direction and have strong ambitions on the international scene.

Another thing is the sporting side. Clubs need to develop their grassroots programme and encourage players to express themselves. Football became very competitive and changed tremendously in terms of athleticism. Defenders are bigger, faster and better. Plus, coaching is perfecting solid systems. Teams are becoming better at defending. As a result, you need creative players, someone that breaks the balance and makes things happen. 

Football is only about scoring one more goal than your opponent so you need to nurture these talents that are skillful and do something special. That’s why goalscorers are always the most wanted assets. With the right player development, more competitiveness between countries, you will forge rivalry that helps that process. 

This is what the AFC competitions bring to the mix. The chance for teams from different countries to compete against each other – this is what you need to progress. Once it’s achieved, the “boom” for football will be created. It means more fans and sponsors willing to engage in commercial activities. That will create a self-propelled machine. Then, the sky’s the limit!

Matthew Lentowczyk: Raphael, thank you for the insightful discussion. Hope you enjoyed it!

Raphael Jordi: That was a great conversation  – thanks for having me! See you soon while working together on the next projects.

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