Years after teams from England, Italy and Spain, the German Bundesliga is finally beginning to discover the potential of the Asian market. But is there enough room for them?
Takahara: Hamburg's ticket to the Japanese market
On a recent trip to China, Rainer Kübler was stunned at the amount of soccer the billion-strong country watches.
Highlights from the English, Spanish and Italian leagues were broadcast almost around the clock. Only one of Europe's major leagues was conspicuous in its infrequency: the Bundesliga.
"We are far behind the others," said Kübler, who two years ago became the Asia point man for the Berlin soccer club Hertha BSC.
Unlike the continent's other big leagues, Germany's top division has only recently begun taking a serious look at the rapidly expanding Chinese market and its massive pool of young talent. Two years ago, 1860 Munich signed the first Chinese player in the Bundesliga. Last year, their cross-town rivals, FC Bayern Munich planned a tour of Chinese cities that they only cancelled because of the SARS scare. They plan to try the tour again this year, and will be shadowed by Hamburg SV, one of the league's most Asia ambitious clubs.
New sources of income
"Teams are permanently looking for new sources of financing and with the domestic market exploited, they need to look across borders for other possibilities," says Manfred Schubert, lecturer at the Cologne Sports Academy.
With a market in East Asia estimated at 3.5 billion people, an increasing number of them massive soccer fans, one wonders why they didn't move earlier. The Premiere League estimates that 500 million people in Asia follow the matches on English soil every week.
Fans of Real Madrid holding up a poster of Real Madrid's David Beckham cheer as they watch the team training in Hong Kong's stadium.
Teams like Manchester United and Newcastle United regularly make trips to the Middle Kingdom and other Asian countries. When Spain's superstar team, Real Madrid, toured there in the summer of 2003, television cameras followed David Beckham and Co.'s every move and teenagers and fans crushed against police barriers surrounding their practice facilities.
With no Beckham at their disposal and no aggressive marketing campaign by individual teams, the Bundesliga has had a very difficult time abroad. Recent figures by the Hamburg marketing firm Sport Five show that the Bundesliga is far behind the three major European soccer leagues in terms of video footage sold. Last season, the Premiership earned 150 million euros ($193 million) for their game footage abroad. Italy's Serie A followed with 65 million euros and Spain's Primera Division with 35 million euros.
Hertha's Xu Addition
The Bundesliga earned 12 million euros.
"We have been sleeping," on the job, said Kübler.
Two years ago, Hertha began getting serious about recruiting an Asian player and appointed Kübler to head its newly-created Asia department. Together with other team officials, Kübler made several trips to China in the past year, observing teenage talent across the country and running clinics.
The hard work has already paid dividends. Beginning next week, Xu Zhan, a 17-year-old striker talent from Peking will begin training with Hertha's amateur team. The club signed him to a three-year contract after bringing him in for a one month trial last November.
"We wanted to get an Asian player," said Kübler. "We are convinced that the Asian soccer market is the future, especially with regard to players."
Winning over Asian fans, one player at a time
Such players also give German clubs instant name recognition and offer a relatively inexpensive way to market themselves abroad.
With Japan already under their belts, thanks to Takahara, Hamburg is concentrating on China.
"HSV did that by signing (striker Naohiro) Takahara, and the Japanese market opened up for them," said Schubert. "I assume other teams will use that method more often in the future."
The interest isn't one-sided. In preparation for hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, which missed out on qualifying for the World Cup in Germany next year, wants its young soccer talent in top shape. When the Chinese soccer federation began casting about for locations in Europe to set up a soccer academy to train their teen talents a year ago, they settled on Bad Kissingen, a small town in Bavaria mostly known for its spas, which beat out locations France and Spain.
China's Germany fascination
"There is already strong partnerships between Germany and China, and Bavaria and China," said Bad Kissinger Mayor Heinz Laudenbach. "And when they wanted to do this, they wanted someone they could depend on."
Chinese soccer players relax at the academy in Bad Kissingen
Last December, Chinese and German officials officially opened the German-Chinese Soccer Academy. For the first few months, 25 promising Chinese players, between the ages of 15 and 20, trained there. Beginning in mid-April there will be 50 players, including professionals from the Chinese soccer leagues. Laudenbach says he's convinced there is still enough time for German soccer to make a good impression.
"Some were there earlier than others. But there is great potential," said Laudenbach. "The breakthrough will come (for German soccer) and maybe this is a first step."