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Blue Pitch: Adrian New on how Chelsea connects with Asian fans

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ADRIAN NEW, Chelsea’s Managing Director of Asia-Pacific, explains how pre-season tours and local-language websites – along with on-pitch success – have helped expand the club’s popularity across East and Southeast Asia.

 

Interview SportAsia

 

At Sports Matters, you said Chelsea’s fans have risen from 25 million a decade ago to 500 million today. How many of those fans are in Asia and how do you source such figures?

We work with Havas and they do research for us across 10 countries, then we extrapolate those figures to look at a rough approximation for other markets. Half of that number is from Asia and frankly, all of the growth.

 

I was born in Chelsea and 10 years ago we had 5 million fans in London; today we have 5 million fans in London. The growth is really Asia. Ten years ago, there were not so many people watching the Premier League and we hadn’t toured Asia. Now, Chelsea coming here every other year and the success we’ve had – with 10 trophies in 10 years – have really driven that fantastic growth, building that fan base in Asia.

 

New was among the speakers at Sports Matters in Singapore. Portraits: Branded / Sports Matters.

New was among the speakers at Sports Matters in Singapore. Portraits (above and top): Branded / Sports Matters.

There has also been some growth in Africa, with the players we’ve had over the last 10 years, like [Didier] Drogba, [Michael] Essien, so we’ve got a big following there. America is growing fast, but the biggest growth has been in China and Southeast Asia.

 

You head up the club’s Asia office in Singapore, which has helped set up local-language websites and social media channels across Asia. How successful and important has this been?

It has been critical, I’d say. When I first joined Chelsea (in 2011), one of the first things we did was go into five languages in Asia. In Thailand, our Facebook traffic went up 300 per cent with the launch of the local language. Fans don’t want to talk in English. They want to chat in their local language, so it’s critical that you let them do that.

 

Yes, we’re an English club; yes, we play in an English league, but the communication is being done with your friends the night before the game, the night after the game, as the game’s happening, so letting people talk in their local language is critical. We’d like to expand into more languages as we can.

 

Chelsea has a massive presence in Thailand through its partnership with Singha. Where else in Asia have you developed strong partnerships?

It would be easier to say where we don’t have partners, frankly. We’ve now got partners in Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, China, Japan, Philippines, everywhere. The EPL is popular in all those Asian markets and there are brands within every market who want to be able to use that platform to engage with customers and with fans of the club.

 

How have Chelsea’s ‘Blue Pitches’ in cities around Asia helped the club’s awareness?

At Chelsea, we have three key values that undermine what we do, which is performance, innovation and community, so everything that we look at matches at least one of those three values. Community is obviously the one where the Blue Pitches fits most easily.

 

For us, it’s not about finding future first-team players because I think it’s a long, long time before the structure of Asian football will allow enough kids to come through. You’re always going to get one or two – there have been Koreans, Japanese – but to get the masses, it’s going to take a long, long time.

 

But what is critical in Asia is that two-thirds of the world are living here. I would love all of that two-thirds to be football fans and the best way to make way to make a football fan is to let them play football when they’re very young, because it’s a fantastic game.

 

I grew up in a culture where football was part of my every day and the minute you play it, it’s just fantastic. It’s fun, you’re with mates and you learn some good lessons about life and how you succeed as a team, not just as an individual. With Chelsea’s soccer schools, we really just want to share some of that excitement with children in a safe, controlled environment.

 

The reason for having the Blue Pitch and the soccer school is so we can provide a safe environment that we control, with coaching that follows the Chelsea philosophy. This includes local coaches who speak the local language and who have ideally earned their FIFA badges, but then spend a week with one of our coaches from Cobham [Training Centre] to get accredited in Chelsea delivery.

 

Adrian New helped launch the Blue Pitch in Bangkok in July 2012 in cooperation with club partner Singha. Photo: Singha.

New helped launch the Blue Pitch in Bangkok in July 2012 in cooperation with club partner Singha. Photo: Singha.

We limit one coach to 15 kids, so you get good attention time. For the standard of coaching itself, we use exactly the same drills we use at Cobham, so kids are receiving the same coaching on how to dribble, how to head, positional play in a match and so on.

 

For safety, if we build the pitch, we make sure the astroturf is of a high quality, or if we’re hiring the pitch, again we make sure that the astroturf is of a quality so there’s no danger of any accidents.

 

We try to keep the price as low as we can because it’s not a profit-making activity for the club. It’s really about giving something back. For the partners that we work with, yes, they have to make money because they’re paying the coaches and they’re paying the fees to hire the pitches, but frankly it’s not a money-making business.

 

We insist on our local partners giving 30 per cent of the time available for free. This is so kids who are at risk, charities or as a CSR platform for our partners, there’s a way that children whose parents who couldn’t afford to pay for an hour-and-a-half-lesson can still access the school and get the benefits and some good training.

 

Is the model for Chelsea’s first team still to tour Asia every two years, considering the USA is proving increasingly popular pre-season?

Yes, the intention is still to tour Asia every other year. We basically can’t tour in the even years because you’ve got the European Championship or the World Cup. This year, Chelsea had 17 players at the World Cup. There isn’t the time to tour Asia in those even years, so we’ve always come here in the odd years and we would like to continue to do that – but it is getting harder.

 

Chelsea’s friendly in Indonesia in 2013 attracted 80,000 fans. Photo: Chelsea FC.

Chelsea’s friendly in Indonesia in 2013 attracted 80,000 fans. Photo: Chelsea FC.

Dates have been squeezed and there are Euro qualifiers the week after the UEFA Champions League final, then our players have three weeks’ holiday. You’re almost into July by the time they’re back. If you’re going to tour Asia, you need to play your first game on around the 14th or 15th, so you want your players to have been training for two weeks before that, plus there’s the flying time.

 

Now they’re talking about the Community Shield being brought forward to maybe August 2, so if you’re playing in that – which we hope to be – you have to be back three of four days before that, so it’s getting harder to fit in the schedule.

 

The advantage America has is just the facilities. We need to find facilities where we can train in a safe, comfortable environment, ideally for a week before we play a game. It’s very hard in Asia to find those facilities. When we travel, there’s 100 people travelling, not just 11 players, so you’ve also got a huge back office to take care of. You need good-quality training pitches, good weather and a secure, safe environment. Finding that in Asia, frankly, is not easy. Yes, we did it in Bangkok in 2013 and there are a couple of places maybe we can look at for 2015, but in America everywhere you go is fantastic.

 

Also, when you have the ICC (International Champions Cup) and that type of tournament, a lot of the logistics are just made easier because they’ve already booked the stadium, made sure the games are sold out and taken care of all the training facilities. All the club has to do is to turn up, so it’s getting easier for the club to look at that model. If the ICC trophy is in Asia – which it is, next year – then that becomes an option for us.

 

Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman was part of the Chelsea U-21 side who took part in the HKFC Citibank Soccer Sevens at Hong Kong Football Club in May 2014.

Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman was part of the Chelsea U-21 side who competed in the 2014 HKFC Citibank Soccer Sevens.

But for promoting Chelsea in Asia, how key are those pre-season tours?

Critical. It’s the only time that 99 per cent of Chelsea’s Asian fans are ever going to get close to the team and we are selling a dream. The ultimate of any fan is, see the team, meet the players and get a signature, so the only time you can do that with any mass is on tour.

 

We can bring 25 players and we can run competitions for which of those fans can get to meet the players, so for me, bringing that experience out to Asia is a critical element in our strategy because that’s how you build a connection.

 

Do you think the popularity of the Premier League and its clubs detract from the popularity of domestic leagues in Asia?

No, I don’t think it’s one or the other. I look at it like the film industry. Hollywood dominates the film industry, but Britain has a strong film industry, France has a strong film industry, Italy has its own film industry, and they can all succeed side by side quite happily. I think football is the same.

 

The EPL is the Hollywood of football. We’re the most entertaining platform there is, we have the top players and people are always going to want to watch it. But if you love football, you can quite happily go and see a game that’s just down the street, which has players you relate to because they’re from your country or city and you’re watching it with your friends. I think there’s room for both.

 

Where there’s maybe a challenge – particularly here in Southeast Asia – is whether the quality of that local football is still attractive enough. If you’re going to charge 40 dollars to see a game, then it has to be an experience, a couple of hours I’m going to enjoy and not sit there and think it’s so poor that I don’t want to come again.

 

In Thailand, I think the league quality is very good now; it’s really taken off. Indonesia is getting good. Both have had investment. Japan and Korea have always been good. It’s just sitting here in Singapore, where the S.League has probably still got the furthest to go, frankly.

 

Finally, you must be happy with Chelsea’s start to the season.

I’m very happy. Just as importantly as the first team being the top of the league is that the U-21s have played three, won three, so we’re top of the U21 league, we’re top of the Premier League, so great stuff.

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