Thursday, August 10, 2006

Leading Indicator?

This year's truncated off-season has shown one thing very clearly: Asia is no longer the market of choice for Europe's major clubs.

Three years ago, clubs were falling over themselves to do summer tours in Asia. Real Madrid's tiring summer tour in 2004 was widely blamed for the team's poor performance the following season. Hidetoshi Nakata's successful spell at Perugia and Roma opened the gates for signing Asian players - none of whom have had any success of note (think Sun Ji Hai, or Junichi Inamoto). Sheffield United even bought Chinese first division club Chengdu, which they subsequently rechirstened the Chengdu Blades (the better to co-brand you with, my dear).

The rationale behind all this was tiresomely familiar to anyone who's read Tom Friedman or Clyde Prestowitz. The east - particularly China - is rising. They have lots of young, increasingly wealthy fans, and they want a piece of a big western brand.

So why has not a single major team made it out east this year? Chelsea, Barcelona and Madrid, have instead chosen to head to the United States, of all places, to buld their brands (Man U, in a sign of just how far the club as fallen, headed to South Africa for its summer work). Does this mean that the east is no longer the place to build brands?

Well, look at it this way. The east may be rising, economically. But the US is already risen. It is a developed economy with an underdeveloped football market. And if there is one thing this last world cup has shown, it is that there is in fact a growing appetite for football in North America. Football books were prominently displayed in major bookstores (on the east coast, at least). Games were shown on TVs in pubs and restaurants even when competing sports events are on.

American also has a viable football league league which produces international-quality players - something which can't really be said about China. The national team made the quarter-finals in 2002 (and rightfully should have made the semis) and though the US performance in Germany was widely mocked, they were arguably one bad penalty away from the elimination rounds (and they were after all the only team in the tournament to get a result from a game against Italy...and with a man short for 43 minutes, to boot)

Perhaps most promising of all is the fact that Panini stickers were for the first time widely available in North America during this World Cup. This stuff is like crack for nine-year old boys; it can do for on soccer what Topps, Fleer and Donruss have done for baseball for years.

Panini's arrival in America can only mean good things for the sport; Real, Barca and Chelsea have picked a very good time to develop the North American market. Other teams need to take note.