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Culture

Bundesliga Hopes to be Big in Japan

Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, is looking to attract fans and revenue from the lucrative Far East market. League chiefs have dispatched Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Kahn to Japan to lay the groundwork.

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Oliver Kahn prepares to catch a hopeful shot on goal as two young Japanese fans look on.

In a business where the go-getters are constantly looking to expand their reach and raise their profile, the Bundesliga has apparently been caught sleeping on the job.

The German soccer league, for so long resigned to its role as the less fashionable cousin to other leagues on its own continent, has been shaken from its slumber by bad dreams of dwindling funds and recurring nightmares of shrinking television revenue.

Now it seems that the German league has woken up to the fact that the giants of Spanish, Italian and English soccer have a head start when it comes to making extra cash and promoting themselves as a brand in the rapidly-growing soccer markets in Asia.

While clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid already have their own branded stores in major Asian cities, selling their replica kits all over the continent -- United alone sells its Nike shirts in over 58 Asian countries -- even Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich have failed to capture the imagination.

Ambassador of the Bundesliga

In an attempt to make up lost ground, tie up some lucrative deals and open avenues to possible cash flow opportunities in these burgeoning fanatical soccer markets, the Bundesliga has dispatched Bayern goalkeeper Oliver Kahn to Japan to promote the league and German football.

Kahn am Boden

Beaten finalist but winner of Japanese respect.

The German national captain is by far the most popular of his compatriots in soccer-hungry Japan after his outstanding performances there during the World Cup in 2002. While his thunder was stolen in the end by star striker Ronaldo, who plies his trade in Spain, Kahn’s display’s as the ultimate line of defense for the runner-up German national team endeared him to the Japanese.

Close relations of the past

The association between the two countries on a soccer level is a close one which goes back many years. German coaches and players have long been recognized as the teachers of the modern game in Japan, while many Japanese players past and present have honed their skills in the Bundesliga. But these days, while respect endures, the influx of German names to Japan has dried up and most Japanese fans do not rate modern German football as much of a spectator sport.

Yuichi Akatsu, soccer expert for state broadcaster NHK admits that many see German football as monotonous, dull and "without special character which inspires the audience," according to comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday.

German soccer lacks the spark

DFB Logo

His comments were supported in the same article by those of Nobuyuki Hirano, soccer marketing expert at Dentsu, Japan’s biggest Japanese advertising agency. "The image of German football is strong and stable, but definitely not thrilling. Compared to Italian and Spanish football, the German football is not attractive, although technically it is very good."

In a bid to convince the skeptical Japanese and the rest of their Far East target group, Bundesliga chiefs are considering shifting scheduled weekend games from their traditional late and mid-afternoon kick off times to 12 noon to allow viewers in Asia to watch live matches. The hope is that demand will supplement funds back in Germany while the future of homegrown television revenue remains up in the air.

To whet the appetite: enter "Ollie". While it is recognized that a change of match scheduling in favor of peak Asian viewing times will not make German soccer popular overnight, the Bundesliga chiefs feel that it is time that Germany’s stars start to make their presence felt, hence the national goalkeeper’s brief tour of exhibition displays.

A pretender to the throne of King David

Asien im Beckhamfieber, Freundschaftsspiel zwischen Real Madrid und Hong Kong

Beckham enjoys adoration across the Far East.

However, Kahn is no David Beckham by any stretch of the imagination. The Englishman’s one-man summer tour of the Far East preceded his transfer to Real Madrid and helped launch the Spanish club’s assault on the Asian market place. When he returned with his new team mates for their own pre-season sojourn, Real racked up around €17.4 million ($22 million) on their travels, including shirt and merchandising sales inspired by the England captain.

And therein lies a potential problem for the Bundesliga’s plans at getting a slice of the Far East market and popularizing German soccer. The European clubs and leagues that have made an impact in the region have done so through the marketable quality of the few big-name stars which just happen to play for some of the most fashionable teams in the world, in some of the most exciting leagues on the planet.

The trend seems to show that the clubs and competitions that are doing well in the Asian sector are doing so because of the popularity of individuals associated with them. The Far East fans seem to adore the celebrity soccer stars. Unfortunately, right now, the Bundesliga is devoid of such globally recognizable players and lacks the pulling power to attract them.

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