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Football imperialism: Barçelona’s expansion in Asia

A look at Barca’s strategy away from the pitch

The shirts with the number 10 of Lionel Messi ready for sale... Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In August of 2018, Facebook bought the rights to broadcast La Liga matches in South Asia, thereby granting free access to all Spanish top flight games for its 350 million or so users in the region. The deal was in line with La Liga’s South Asian strategy, a region in which it has been trying to gain a footing for a few years now. When Javier Tebas inaugurated the first La Liga office in India, back in 2016, he spoke of the moment as being ‘one of the most important in La Liga’s history’ and talked of the country’s untapped market. Since then, the league and its India head Jose Antonio Cachaza, have made significant forays into the market; they have signed local companies as global sponsors and have made regional sports megastars their brand ambassadors. In 2018, the Liga launched a grass-roots program called ‘LaLiga Football Schools’ across 14 Indian cities in an attempt to raise brand awareness. The league has also sought to reorganise the timings of the biggest matches in the league (the Clasico and the Madrid derby) as to align them with the Asian ‘primetime.’

There is a method behind the madness, or the proactiveness, if you will. India alone has close to 250 million Facebook users and Liga livestreams often fetch up to 150,000 viewers. This is, of course, in a country with an ever growing digital footprint and a primary sport that is not football. And India is not alone. When Espanyol’s Wu Lei scored against Barça this season, the event caused a seismic shock in Chinese social media circles with certain hashtags generating more than 370 million views. Asia, at least in terms of football, is still ripe for the taking and the major leagues know it.

In certain cases, clubs themselves have begun to lead this ‘expansion’, with the usual suspects leading the charge (i.e Barca and Real). Barça in particular has been proactive. After opening their first office in Hong Kong in 2013, the club has subsequently declared China, Japan, Indonesia and India as ‘strategic countries’; the office itself has expanded over the years and now is the chief link between the Catalan giants and business opportunities in the region. In 2018, Barça opened its first ‘experience’ museum in Hainan province, in Southern China.

However, circumstances have changed slightly since 2013, and social media has become an even bigger part of the football fan’s diet. This has resulted in a reorientation of the club’s expansion strategy, from a business-oriented approach to a consumer-oriented one, with the club focusing more on social media interaction and direct store visits. Barça have also categorised their fans in the region into four groups; those who primarily support Barça, those who count Barça as their second favourite, those who are interested in football in general and those who just want interesting content on their timeline or feed. Jordi Camps, Barça’s MD for the Asia-Pacific region, claimed that all four groups were ‘equally important’, in an interview with Offthepitch.com, but added that the way to appeal to each group is different.

In general, Barça’s USP (unique selling point) has been the famous ‘Mes Que Un Club’ tagline. The club has tried to position itself as a socio owned brand with a distinct philosophy and style. Barça uses its many interactions with Asian celebrities to further the club’s image as a ‘global family’ and also uses independent influencers in countries such as India, Korea and Japan to do the same. However the club’s biggest assets remain its players. And, in Asia, where people often form closer bonds with individual players than with teams, having household names such as Leo Messi, Gerard Piqué, Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suárez as commercial assets proves indispensable. In this light, the pursuit of Neymar looks quite different. The Brazilian offers a level of name recognition that is only really topped by Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He could serve as a key motivator for casuals in choosing Barça as their primary club, therefore expanding the merchandise revenue net.

Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Photo by Denis Doyle - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

While Barça have decided to focus on a consumer-oriented approach in the region, they have nevertheless strung together numerous brand deals with Asian partners such as Rakuten, Oppo, Konami and other regional partners such as Shanghai Pudong Bank (banking partner), Yunnan Baiyao (regional partner), Taiping Life Insurance (insurance partner), Bank Mega (banking partner), Sebang Rocket (car battery partner), Nichiban (tape partner), among others.

What is most interesting about Barça’s (and football’s) expansion into Asia is the kind of clientele or fan it attracts. In Europe, football was the working class answer to more ‘elitist’ sports such as cricket. Barça itself comes from humble amateur beginnings (its founder Joan Gamper placed an advertisement in a newspaper). To this day, the backbone of the club’s fanbase is formed by its working class season ticket holders. This is, then, in sharp contrast to its distinctly upper-middle class/middle-class fanbase in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps, this is because football is not a grassroots sport in those nations and is more enticing to a younger generation of sports enthusiasts. In India, for instance, the working class and the older generations already have a sport: cricket. There, football is taking a hold as a secondary sport mainly amongst younger folks, who are coming online in large numbers and are looking for fresh content to consume. The armchair fan is going global.

Is there an inherent gulf between the local fanbase and those that watch from afar? Perhaps. Whether that is something of consequence or not is tough to say. It will not stop clubs however. Today, football clubs are in a similar position to the conquistadors of old. They have uncharted territory, untapped potential right at their disposal. And by the looks of things they intend to make use of it.

May the modern conquest be less painful, then.

A note: I would highly recommend the two articles linked below. They expand on what has been discussed above, and are very informative, in general. Worth a read.