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Man United is Asia’s most popular football club, but Lionel Messi is the region’s favourite player

Manchester UnitedManchester United is by far the most popular football brand in Asia – except in Japan where AC Milan is the most favoured club, according to a study by sports marketing agency Octagon.

The Red Devils topped a survey of 1,200 people, or 200 per market, in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and China. Rival English Premier League clubs Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal also featured highly in Southeast Asian countries, while European clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid are more popular in China and Japan.

Most popular football clubs

Most popular clubs in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China. Source: Octagon

Asian football fans think differently about teams and players, with not a single EPL footballer among the most favoured individuals in the region, according to Octagon’s research, called The Passion Shift.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is Asia’s most popular footballer, followed by Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo. David Beckham, the former LA Galaxy, Real Madrid and Manchester United midfielder who retired two years ago, is third most popular.

Most popular footballers

Most popular players in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China. Source: Octagon

Japan is again the exception to the rule, where Brazilian forward Neymar is more popular than Lionel Messi.

 Messi in WeChat ad

Messi in WeChat ad

In Asia, the connection with football is less tribal and less engrained in multi-generational club alliances than developed markets such as Europe, and player preferences are driven more by marketing and off-field pursuits than playing ability or team connections, according to Octagon’s regional head of strategy, Adam Hodge.

Ronaldo in ad for Japanese facial fitness brand PAO

Ronaldo in ad for Japanese facial fitness brand PAO

“Over the years we have seen similar patterns of passion in the Middle East and Africa, where early stage fan passion is driven more by a players profile in the media over affiliations with teams or even on-field performance,” he said.

Messi has appeared in ads for messaging service WeChat in China, while Ronaldo has appeared in ads for brands ranging from Armani to Japanese facial fitness brand PAO. David Beckham featured a recent campaign for Singapore casino Marina Bay Sands.

David Beckham Marina Bay Sands

The huge popularity of AC Milan in Japan, above Manchester United, is partly explained by a marketing deal between the Italian club and Sanrio, the owner of Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty AC Milan partnershipHodge said that while this may look like an odd partnership to Western eyes, it brought together two of Japans most loved brands and built connections with the traditionally less engaged young female fans.

Manchester United is Asia’s most popular club due to a number of factors including the enduring “Beckham and Ronaldo effect”, Hodge explained.

These two megastars went “beyond the pitch” and connected as personalities at a time when football was just taking a foothold in Asia, driven by local media rights and the spread of cable TV, he said.

Manchester United’s continue on-field success at the time that Asian TV rights for football boomed and access increased via Pay TV is another factor. “If you’re picking you team from scratch, with little family ties or historic connections, why would you not want to be on a winning side?” Hodge said.

Manchester United’s early investment in the region has paid off, Hodge added. The club from the North of England was one of the first to run Asian friendly tours (with at least a semblance of a first team), and grassroots clinics and academies that helped win over young fans without prior family allegiances. It was also one of the first clubs to set up local commercial offices to secure and service Asian sponsors.

Park Ji-Sun

Park Ji-Sung

The success of Korean midfielder Park Ji-Sung, who became the first Asian footballer to win the UEFA Champions League, was also key in driving support for Man U not only in Korea, but across the region, Hodge noted.

“Fans could finally see themselves in the beloved jersey each week,” Hodge said. “This culminated in the ultimate honour of being handed the captain’s armband from the legendary Ryan Giggs in 2005 for a Champions league game. So great was Ji-Sung’s impact that Man U have brought him back on the payroll after he left the club in 2012 to be a global brand ambassador.”

Other clubs that have successfully grown fan bases in Asia by leveraging sponsorship deals are Everton and Thai beer brand Chang, and Chelsea and Korean electronics giant Samsung, Hodge noted.

More good yearsOn the Chang-Everton tie-up, Hodge said: “The deal was based almost entirely on the value of broadcast. Something that had never been done before. Given that the brewer’s drinkers were all domestic, their investment in the club was purely based on a product not available in Europe.”

On the deal between Samsung and Chelsea, he commented: “Specifically through grassroots clinics and activations in Asia, the club does a great job in connecting with the next generation of fans. And then more broadly, their player ambassador and content campaign ‘Galaxy  11’ during the last World Cup really showed an intimate understanding of the Asian market. A brilliant combination of the joint passions for football and gaming to grab attention when the brand was not a FIFA sponsor.”

Octagon’s findings come in the week that strategist Dave McCaughan wondered in an opinion piece why English football commands such loyalty in Asia.

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