For years now, English Premier League clubs have cast expectant eyes toward the Far East football market as part of efforts to propel their global brands.
Perhaps the most successful has been Manchester United, with the recruitment of South Korea’s star midfielder, Park Ji-sung, a jewel in their marketing crown. The club is a veritable giant, able to count hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of fans across the likes of Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan and Malaysia.
While clubs in mainland Europe have achieved success without signing up Korean star names – Real Madrid a case in point – for others, breaking the mold of anonymity poses the biggest obstacle to marketing success.
But now a relative newcomer on the block from just across the English border appears to be making concerted efforts to break into the Korean market: Glasgow Celtic, from the Scottish Premier League, a division of minnows in the grand scheme of world football.
When Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura left the club in the summer of 2009, questions were raised about where the club would turn to plug the gap left in its global expansion efforts.
His four-year stay had proved a lucrative one, opening up a healthy slice of the world’s third-biggest economy for the Glasgow outfit.
In the current climate of financial uncertainty, overseas revenue streams are taking on added significance.
Now Celtic’s sights are firmly fixed on South Korea after they snapped up national team defender Cha Du-ri in the wake of the World Cup. Only last year, South Korean midfield protégé was secured on a four-year contract. At the time, Celtic also acquired Chinese midfielder Zheng Zhi, and were forced to refute allegations they made the signing on purely marketing grounds.
While the burgeoning potential of China – now the world’s No. 2 marketplace but rampant with piracy that would threaten brand protection – looks the most attractive, others point toward the freer and more mature South Korean market as a potentially steadier source of revenue.
South Korea, which emerged quickest from the economic downturn that swept the world last year, is a hive of passionate football supporters who embrace their foreign-based local heroes with often messianic reverence.
The classic example of success lies with Manchester United, which has tapped the market to the tune of perhaps tens of millions of pounds, helped largely by the acquisition of Park.
Ki Sung-yong, for one, has the kind of youth and potential in the game that would seem to spell positives. But the big question is whether Celtic can follow United’s lead, particularly while saddled with the Achilles heel of hailing from an unfashionable football league.South Korean analysts are coy. The consensus – laced with suspicion over Celtic’s true intentions for signing Ki – appears to be that the club may have to play the long game.
Earlier this year in the wake of Celtic’s signing of Ki, one local business journalist said many in the South Korean media and among the public wondered whether the club only signed the 20-year-old to cash in commercially.
However, while those involved in marketing Celtic in Korea remain cagey over making predictions, others say his mere capture will place the club on the map. The initial focus is expected to be in securing sponsorship, rather than flooding the market with merchandise and Celtic-branded establishments.
Manchester United’s relevant statistics are lofty. The English club netted an estimated $9.9m after a series of pre-season friendly matches in Asia in the summer of 2009, one of which was in Korea, and boast United-themed bars across the region, with one in a plush district of Seoul. Another tour to the Far East this summer is likely to fetch a similar sum.
In the sponsorship market, there are a clutch of big hitters in Korea. Last summer, Chelsea and Samsung Electronics, part of the world’s biggest conglomerate, renewed their shirt sponsorship deal for another three years. Rival firm LG sponsors fellow English Premier League side Fulham.
However, such agreements are not always plain sailing. In 2007, LG denied allegations it was trying to force Fulham to buy a South Korean player.
Pressures aside, Lee Jeong-hak, a sports marketing professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, says Korea could still prove financially rewarding for Celtic, but probably at lower levels than those enjoyed in England.
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