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 fifth issue, Matthew Lentowczyk caught up with Cesare Polenghi, CEO & Founder at Ganassa, to discuss how European sports clubs, leagues and federations can attract Asian fans. Ganassa is a team of digital football media specialists focused on the creation, localization and development of social media networks. Cesare is an expert with over 15 years of experience at creating and executing content strategies aiming to build a base of supporters in six East Asian countries: Japan, Singapore, China, Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Cesare is extremely proud of developing a healthy and supportive atmosphere in his company, which is made out of people passionate about football. As a result, Ganassa is constantly growing and securing new contracts: FIFA, UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Liga Portugal, Manchester City F.C., Juventus F.C., Borussia Dortmund, FC Internazionale Milano, Aston Villa F.C., Celtic F.C., Real Betis, PAOK FC… just to name a few organisations Gannasa is partnering with.
The exchange of views between Matthew and Cesare on the differences between European and Asian markets led us to some interesting conclusions on:
- What kind of sports clubs & organisations should think of attracting Asian fans?
- How can European brands engage supporters from Asia?
- What results do European sports clubs & leagues achieve in Asia so far?
Matthew Lentowczyk: Cesare, the names of the brands you work with are impressive. Congratulations on securing so many contracts with the most prominent players in the sports industry. However, it immediately leads us to the first question: what size of sports clubs, leagues and federations should start thinking of attracting supporters from Asia? Is it only the big fish that can operate there? Can small- and medium-sized sports organisations be successful in winning Asian fans?
Cesare Polenghi: Basically, there are two routes.
If you are already a global brand, it’s simple to promote your product internationally as you don’t need to cross the barrier of being mostly anonymous to your target group.
If you are a challenging club, you need to leverage your identity, your narrative, and create a niche for yourself. You can achieve that through time, dedication and creativity.
Let me give you a couple of examples. We work with Celtic Glasgow and Real Betis. These are not clubs competing regularly in the Champions League. Still, they’re incredibly successful in Asia, growing their fan communities there.
Imagine you operate in six countries in Asia. If you gain 1000 passionate fans, willing to one day go to your stadium, and for now already purchasing your merchandise, people that are willing to spend around 100 euros per year on your brand, you have the yearly revenue of 100,000 euros already. And the costs of achieving that are much smaller. The barrier of entry is very low.
Sure, it takes some initial investment, patience and determination to generate significant profits in the long term – but it’s worth it. Still, some medium-sized sports clubs prefer to invest in players rather than people building their long-lasting growth, which is very surprising from the business perspective.
Matthew Lentowczyk: Having in mind that the barrier of entry is very low for medium-sized sports brands, I would also like to understand what knowledge, apart from financial calculations, you need to have before operating in Asia. What I mean here is business, fan engagement and content creation differences between Europe and Asia. Would you be able to point out some clear distinctions between what we generally see on these markets without going too much into specific countries?
Cesare Polenghi: Asia is a very diverse continent. When I compare Europe to “my” market, let’s stick to the term “East Asia”, which is still not perfect but closer to reality. Asian fans have… “bigger hearts”. They can sympathise with more than one club and engage in the life of many sports brands emotionally. In Europe, we tend to be obsessed with one single club for life, and that’s all.
Maybe the main difference is that there are still a lot of people in Asia that can be convinced to follow football and become a supporter of your club. There is lots of unoccupied space full of people willing to become members of a big “football-following society”.
Yet, we need to remember that these numbers are not infinite. According to the research we did in 2020, the places that have a little bit deeper roots when it comes to following European football, such as Singapore or Hong Kong, have the percentage of fans supporting the same club as their parents at a much higher level.
That’s one of the reasons why sports clubs should start acting now. If they don’t, in a few decades it will be too late, and the “families’ strength” might dominate over other sources of gaining fans, as it is in the case of the rest of the world.
Matthew Lentowczyk: What are the basics that sports organisations need to have to start operating in Asia? What platforms do they need to use? What content to create? Where to look for help?
Cesare Polenghi: Sports organisations should hire one agency in Asia and have one person within the club that coordinates their plans, somebody who follows them and is able to help when the need arises.
That’s all you need for an entry-level.
Still, the more people you engage in the project, the better! I love the example of sports clubs like Cadiz, which decided to smartly invest in external markets like Vietnam. From what I know, their fourth-biggest fanbase is there now!
If Cadiz were to open an academy in Vietnam, they would certainly be successful because they already constitute a well-known and appreciated brand there. If they were to look for a local partner or sponsor, it will be much easier because they already engaged many people. That’s what you should try to achieve.
Matthew Lentowczyk: What values and feelings do you need to share in your communication to make new people from Asia follow your brand?
Cesare Polenghi: The essential thing to understand is to make the fans in Asia feel that they’re as important for you as your local supporters.
You always need to work on two levels.
- One is to create your community, no matter what scale you have at the time you’re dealing with it.
That means investing in organising meetings and events where your “evangelists” will spread the real emotions they feel about your club and your brand.
Delivering the merchandise that supporters will be able to wear to feel a part of the bigger community is also a “must-have”, of course.
- The other strategic element is to cooperate with mainstream media.
For instance, in Japan, we have a partnership with Yahoo, which lets us publish clubs’ content directly on their platform. Long story short, this allows us to have enormous digital reach for the most engaging video content, reaching up to a million views per clip among Japanese fans.
From this group, some people will get interested in the club, start following the social media accounts and, in the future, maybe become passionate supporters of the club.
Matthew Lentowczyk: I can imagine that one of the main obstacles with engaging fans from “other continents” is the distance, the lack of matchday experience, the difficulty to follow things in real-time. What would you advise the clubs to do to overcome it?
Cesare Polenghi: I would like to emphasize that you need to find the right balance between online and offline activities.
We help our clients to organise fan clubs. We make Asian supporters of different teams meet each other, play in friendly futsal tournaments, eat & drink together. It allows us to achieve the effect of scale and engage leagues in the whole operation. We have even at least one marriage that came out of these events that we organised, which is wonderful!
If I were a decisive person in the sports clubs, I would regularly invite the most engaged fans from Asia to come to Europe, to the stadium for free. There are fans who work so hard for the clubs, spreading the words and emotions, and they do it just because they love the brand. If you appreciate them properly, they will repay you off even better.
Still, especially during the pandemic, we see an enormous value of digital solutions giving a chance for the fans to interact with each other and for sports brands to keep their supporters engaged in the online sphere. Naturally, having dedicated platforms for such operations is a huge advantage.
Matthew Lentowczyk: One of the ideas that is getting very popular when it comes to engaging fans from all around the world is tokenisation. What clubs do is they allow supporters to buy tokens, which can be exchanged for decision-making activities.
Depending on the sports brand, fans can choose from the song that will accompany the team entering the pitch, through the graphical design of the team’s bus, up to the first squad that will play in the (friendly) game. Do you think that this might be an interesting opportunity to engage fans from Asia as well?
Cesare Polenghi: I’m far from saying that the supporters should make all the decisions in the club. However, fans are the most important element of any sports brand. Ignoring their opinion is a huge mistake.
The more you feel what they need, the closer you’re to winning their hearts.
Especially young people from Generations Y & Z, they want to participate in your club actively. Translating your communication to your fans outside of your country is a significant step, but it’s just the beginning. Creating personalised content, giving your fans the feeling that they feel heard and appreciated, making them a story of your club… that’s what you need here. Tokenisation might be one of the solutions to achieve it.
Matthew Lentowczyk: You mentioned the idea of rewarding the most active fans for their willingness to spread the word and emotions about your brand. What I see here is that in order to achieve it, you need to have two things. First, data-gathering & management platform, probably a CIAM one with SSO at the forefront. Then, a loyalty program, which will have algorithms transforming fans’ actions into points or tokens. Do you think it would be a good path for sports clubs operating in Asia?
Cesare Polenghi: Absolutely! The whole idea of rewarding your fans for their activity is one I love. It would also work well from the business perspective, as it will promote your brand or your tokens in entirely new places.
People love these stories where you surprisingly invite one or a few fans to your stadium because of what they did for you in terms of fan engagement. That brings enormous publicity and “booms” you to a previously unattainable level of relationship between sports brands and supporters.
Another thing that immediately comes to my mind is engaging new institutions in your strategic activities. For example, collaborating with soccer schools, charity foundations or companies that want to help others. That’s a great move, which, at the end of the day, make all the parties win.
Matthew Lentowczyk: To finish our discussion off – before we talked officially, you mentioned that at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, you were thinking of creating a company with reversed business goals to Ganassa. Instead of promoting European brands in Asia, you wanted to promote Asian football in Europe.
What do you think is unique about the Asian football industry? What makes them special when compared to any other place in the world? Feel free to refer to any of the fields you have in mind.
Cesare Polenghi: There is one thing that immediately caught my attention. Asians are much more successful in engaging women in the football industry. It refers to employees, players and fans.
If you go to a J.League game, more than 40% of supporters are women, and they are from all age ranges. In Europe, in many countries, these numbers are still lower than 20%. Omitting the gender that constitutes more than 50% of the population is a big problem. In Asia, as a sports brand, you can easily reach anyone, no matter what their gender, background or preferences are.
Matthew Lentowczyk: That’s a great message that shows the direction we should have as people working within the sports industry. Sharing our knowledge and learning from others. Thank you very much, Cesare – it was an insightful conversation!
Cesare Polenghi: Thank you for the invitation, it was a pleasure to talk to you! Once I’ll own a football club, I hope to combine my knowledge with your digital power to create unique experiences for the supporters. See you soon!
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