Football in the Twilight Zone: Leagues Beyond European Borders

Former Atletico Madrid and Spain forward Fernando Torres has agreed to join Japanese club Sagan Tosu, an announcement that follows on the heels of former Spain teammate Andres Iniesta making a similar move to J1 League team Vissel Kobe. Both teams will look to leverage the draw of these superstars to improve sell-out ratio and ticket spend which has been stagnating over the last three seasons between 48 and 58 per cent. Vissel Kobe historically has performed slightly better in total ticket spend, generating USD8 million in ticket sales in 2016 compared with Sagan Tosu’s USD6.6 million. The goal is simple, world cup winners with a global following will shine the commercial spotlight on the team, and grow revenues across all streams, from match-day, digital, and broadcasting, to merchandise and jersey sales.

Given the impressive growth of football beyond European boundaries, moves of this nature may well become par for the course for world class footballers that have cut their teeth in top leagues in Western Europe, and are now looking to maximise the twilight years of their careers. For players that seek these opportunities, the unmapped territories of emerging leagues pose commercial questions that extend far beyond the width of a weekly pay packet.

J1 League snaps up superstars

For Iniesta, the link from Barcelona to Vissel Kobe is more obvious. Rakuten Inc. (CEO. Hiroshi Mikitani) entered into a four-year, USD$235 million sponsorship deal as Barcelona’s jersey sponsor. Mikitani is also owner of Vissel Kobe, a tangible commercial link that no doubt greased the gears of negotiation. Terms of Iniesta’s contract were not disclosed but Japanese media reported that part of the deal includes an agreement to buy millions of bottles of Iniesta’s wine brand (Bodega Iniesta). As Saki sales stagnate in Japan and Chilean wines gaining a foothold, and as consumers move away from on-trade to wallet-friendly off-trade purchases, this agreement (if true) sweetens the deal significantly.

Along with this, his list of deliverables are substantial. Vissel Kobe over the last three seasons have generated around a 50% sell-out ratio while sell-out ratio league leaders Kawasaki Frontale fill 90%. Iniesta’s first task is the first commercial goal of sports properties globally – fill more empty seats. Viewed by many of his peers as one of the most inventive and complete footballers of all time, the presence of Iniesta will hopefully grow Vissel Kobe’s fan base. To what degree, remains to be seen. From the digital perspective Iniesta will also shine the spotlight on Japanese football, boasting 23.6m followers on twitter, 24.1m on Instagram and 27m likes on Facebook. In comparison, Vissel Kobe has less than 54k Twitter followers, 15k Instagram followers and 30k Facebook likes.

The less tangible deliverables are also those that he has most control over, and that will also provide a dual benefit in potentially furthering his career when he hangs up his boots. He is expected to implement his footballing philosophy within the club at various levels as a player, and this could be a valuable stepping stone toward an esteemed coaching position and provide a route back to Europe, and even Spain in the long-term in a managerial capacity, should this be a path he wishes to follow.

Mikitani stated that “Iniesta will have a ripple effect throughout the J1 League and the whole of Japanese soccer. I hope the J1 League will grow to become a league that the whole world wants to watch”. As sports properties across the globe look toward digital channels to drive expansion, the presence of marquee footballers will act as a useful catalyst.

While the prestige, heritage and commercial side of top European clubs are peerless in the sport, J1 League ranks better than many of the other parties that expressed interest in both Iniesta and Torres, although the one question still remains, why not follow the well trodden path to the MLS? It can be argued that beyond the specifics of the deal, MLS has grown to such a degree that their superstar status won’t translate to the same degree as it will in Asia. When Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG straight from the Chelsea bench, he went from European periphery, to one of the most influential players on the entire continent.

Source: Euromonitor International

Emerging leagues to contend with Europe?

Despite the growth of emerging leagues, they have a long way to go before they can compete with ‘the big five’ in Europe (Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Serie A). As players in the twilight of their careers departed Europe for new opportunities, it was often assumed the door would close after them. The quality of football outside Europe has risen drastically in recent years and several notable players have even returned to Europe to continue their career. Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, whose spells at Shanghai Shenhua both enjoyed a successful return to the the Premier League after their stint in China, with Drogba returning to Chelsea and Anelka joining West Bromwich Albion. This shows two thing – firstly, they didn’t lose their edge in an emerging league, and secondly, the attitude towards these moves in Europe are softening.

As smaller (commercially, comparative to European leagues) seek to realise the growth opportunities presented by technology (social media, OTT streaming), there comes a realisation that to win big in the global battle for attention, spending big is a necessity. The future of footballing legends, much like the future of sports, isn’t decided solely by physical location, rather it is decided by commercial potential and where the global spotlight shines. Torres can remain connected to his global fan base and still capitalise on sponsorships from the Western island of Kyushu, all the while expanding the reach and attractiveness of Japanese soccer, and obviously for Sagan Tosu, he can also fill more seats.